Monday, March 24, 2008

Wind Follower by Carole McDonnell

Well, I gave it almost 100 pages.

Only very rarely do I not finish a book – I think around 8 years has past since the last time I gave up on one without finishing. In all honesty, I’m busier now than I’ve been through the majority of my life, and have much less reading time as a result, so I just don’t have the time to spend on a book that I’m not enjoying. At another time I may have stuck it out, but I’d not read too much into that – the very fact I decided not to finish Wind Follower by Carole McDonnell likely says more than anything that follows.

The portions of Wind Follower that I managed to read revolve around the late-adolescent son of a warrior clan leader, Loic, who falls in love with Satha, an older woman in her twenties of a different tribe and already considered something of a spinster. The politics of households and differing tribal cultures are eclipsed by spoiled rotten young Loic as he rushes to marry Satha, breaking cultural norms along the way.

Wind Follower feels like a novel still two or three revisions from being ready. The frame of a very interesting story is there, just not the polish necessary to pull it off. McDonnell tries too hard in her descriptions and fails utterly to make the characters interesting. Beyond the first chapter, nothing about Loic is remotely appealing – while there is a lot about Loic that the reader isn’t supposed to like, McDonnell fails to find the line necessary to actually keep the reader interested enough to continue. Not helping is the inconsistency with which she writes – characters suddenly know more than they should and their actions are sometimes totally at odds with the personalities she has built. Satha is particularly inconsistent in both her thoughts and actions – one page she is a strong-willful individual, the next a meek, subservient woman with no adequate justification. Much of the first hundred pages are told in a first person narration with as the Loic and Satha alternatively tell their stories from some point far into the future. Perhaps some of these inconsistencies are due to an unreliable narrator, if so the clumsiness of this execution is equally disappointing.

While the cover doesn’t indicate as much, McDonnell herself calls Wind Follower Christian fantasy. Seeing the potential of an epic fantasy told in something of an African setting had my hopes high, even though I don’t typically read Christian fantasy. I’d not call the religiosity ‘in your face’, but Wind Follower lacks subtly with things a bit on the conservative side for me. Perhaps this is not the direction things go as the story continues, but McDonnell failed to make me want to find out.

I debated posting this or not – after all, I can’t fairly call this a review since I did not read even a third of the novel. In the end, I decided that there isn’t a good reason for me not to post my thoughts on the first 100 pages and why I didn’t read the rest.

23 comments:

SQT said...

I haven't finished this yet either. I don't think I'd say I dislike it but I have issues with Loic too. I don't know... I'll have to finish it and then draw a final conclusion. (I know what you mean about not being able to finish. I have a few like that on my shelf)

Brett said...

That's Christian Fantasy? I didn't realize that they put revealing covers on their books. Props off for actually getting 100 pages into it; I doubt I could do more than 20.

CaroleMcDonnell said...

Thanks, Neth.

I appreciate the review. Most folks who have finished it have liked it. Irosf recently gave it a great review, and WF also was recommended at the Swancon Academic SF convention in Perth Australia. In addition the Carl Brandon society, a group dedicated to showing the works of writers of color recently recommended it as one of their twelve books for Black History Month. But tastes differ. I understand what you mean about dealing with certain spoiled characters and with books you don't immediately connect to. I definitely appreciate your fairness and honesty in dealing with this review. A search on the internet will show that you're the only one who couldn't finish it and one of the few who totally disliked it. So it's a nice balance there. -C

Neth said...

-Carole

Thanks for stopping by - I always love it when authors post around here. I had seen the recommendation from the Carl Brandon Society which got me (more) excited about the book, but it just didn't work for me. I imagine I'll give it another shot sometime in the future becuase the concept is exciting and remains so. I like the combination of African and Biblical inspiration (without it becoming didactic), but the execution just wasn't there for me. Perhaps when I pick it up in the future things will work better.

-brett

While I'm not well-read in the Christian Fantasy world, I'd say that this one would be a bit on the controversial side. Characters are not the typical Western European decent WASPs and there is a fair amount of sex and violence (well, I'm told there's violence - there wasn't much in the first 100 pages). I imagine that perceptions and such get challenged as the book progresses (other reviews indicate as much), but it takes a long time for this to develop and the interest necessary for me to care enough to continue wasn't developed in time. As I said in the review, I think this book is still a revision or three from being ready.

CaroleMcDonnell said...

Hi Neth:

If you can give it another try, definitely. It's gotten some great reviews. Interestingly, romance lovers really like it. So I suspect romance readers have a different way of encountering characters. They enjoy the slow pace of getting into the subtleties of relationships. So, if you try to tackle it again, perhaps the thing is to get into romance pacing. Non-romance-readers would definitely have problems with WF because the first 150 pages is romance. The next is slave narrative. The last part is spiritual memoir.

Nah, there isn't that much violence. Honestly. It's just that what violence there actually is ...is really really really graphic and heart-felt. It's not the quick raping and pillaging one sees in certain fantasy...or the genteel emotions one finds in Christian fiction.

Honestly, I can't say it needs revisions. I'm a pretty honest person and if I thought it needed revisions, I'd own up pretty quickly. Anyone who has seen my responses to reviews to my short stories or novels know that I'm the first to agree with a true critique. I'll say that many critters -- which includes some well-known published authors and editors-- were my beta-readers. I was honored to get more revisions from wonderful writers than the typical writer. And most reviews have attested to how well-written the book is. So there really aren't any places where characters know things they shouldn't etc. There really isn't.

My aim was to honor the African-American slave narratives and Native American oral rhetoric and storytelling. Although such memoirs aren't studied or understood by the typical American reader, those who understand those forms think I did a pretty good job...and that Wind Follower reads like ethnic storytelling narrative. As I said, the book was recently honored in Australia at Swancon--- by an atheist feminist academic no less. And it will also be discussed in Wiscon. So at least the academics, feminists, atheists, and people of color like it.

I DO appreciate your review though and I am blessed and honored that you chose to at least try to read it. They say any publicity is good publicity. So, will see. Thanks so much. -C

Nick Wood said...

I think 'Windfollower' rewards the effort put in eventually - it grows on you, so I'd certainly recommend giving it another go. I really like the fact that it pushes boundaries beyond trad. fantasy fare as well as traditional 'Christian' perspectives!

Tia Nevitt said...

I read this and gave it a mostly positive review. I read it when it first came out. I found the Biblical elements to be minimal unless you are very familiar with the Bible. It's about struggles with revenge and passions, and about consequences for one's actions. The villains are somewhat sympathetic, which I always find intriguing. I especially liked Loic's last battle. The characters constantly throw some very unexpected curves.

It is a highly atypical fantasy, written from a perspective that most of us Westerners would find unusual. I found it worth getting through in the end.

Larry said...

I'll refrain from taking you to task for writing commentary on an incomplete book this time, Ken...but only this time :P But I have to admit that I'm intrigued by it - who's the publisher, so I can see about requesting a review copy?

Charlotte Byrd said...

Thank goodness you said this, because I've been struggling with whether or not I should. I find it funny that you gave up on the book almost exactly where I did. I got *just* over the 100 page mark when I threw up my hands and said No More.

The Christianity gets really in your face later in the book, though. I skipped around in it, trying to see if the flaws fixed themselves or anything got interesting. Alas, no. There's the typical (for epic fantasy) rape of the main female that is cause for everyone to learn and grow (because that's how we all learn and grow, when women are raped), and some mess about Loic finding the Book of the Creator which is actually the Bible. But the best (worst) part is, close to the end, where Satha, in narration, explains how the different tribes deal with the book and the knowledge (Christianity) that Loic brings them.

It goes something like: some of the tribes pretended to follow the book, but said that only the priests could read it or interpret it properly and everyone else had to follow their interpretation (Catholics), some tribes wrote additional books to explain the text in the real book (Apocrypha, Gnostic texts) thereby corrupting the teachings of the book (Gnostics), and one tribe, upset that other tribes could claim that they received the book first, had a high priest who claimed to have talked directly with the creator, and wrote his own book in opposition to the true book and made war on all the other tribes (Muslims). Then the cake topper, Satha says that the different tribes of brown people will continue to be ruled over and defeated by the Angleni (the white people) until they stop being silly and accept the true word of the book as the Angleni have. the Creator has allowed the Angleni to triumph over them because, while they are evil, they are still the only ones following the true path.

I have no words for how hard I rolled my eyes at that mess.

Neth said...

-Larry, You know there is nothing wrong with me writing commentary on a book I didn't choose to finish. I've never claimed this blog as anything more than my thoughts and opinions on books I read. In those terms, this commentary on a book I chose to not finish is equally valid. Especially since I was upfront and clear about not finishing the book and the reasons why I chose not to. Hell, I even added a little context as to why it might just be the place I'm at right now.

The publisher is Juno and they have some other interesting sounding titles as well.

-Charlotte, thanks for posting - I was beginning to feel a bit lonely since everyone else seems to have liked the book. What you say about the ending really makes me think I'll not enjoy the rest of the book - especially since it seems to be an interpetation of Christianity at odds with mine (especially since it seems to be ultimately a dividing interpretation rather than uniting). And mis-representation of Gnostic texts (many of which significantly predate the writings that we know as the New Testament) really irks me. But I digress.

CaroleMcDonnell said...

Hi Neth:

The rape was placed in the story because on a totally personal ethnic level, I wanted to depict the rape of dark women. I also wanted to flip the Hagar/Sarah script. I wanted a Christian fantasy to deal with the issue of American Christian racism, American Christian imperialism, minority unity..and the religious journeys Christians have had to make as they strived to coincide their Christian religion with the American Christian racism.

The only way to do it would be to make readers identify with the dark woman as a victim, not just a minor character who is a token slave tossed into a book by a white Christian writer. As a Black womanist I had to do it, even if I don't want to because american Christian fictions are used to entering into the pain of the blonde-haired white woman, not the minority woman. They are used to thinking that "pagans" had no "true religion" or "nobility" and that Christianity popped up and saved them. I wanted to create a kind of missionary testament from the point of view of the "converted pagan." I wanted to say, "See, we black women can love, and we come from a lovely heritage and we have pain too." But I also had to make it fantasy...because that's my genre.

As for the comment about Gnostics.... nah....the varieties of religious interpretations at the end was my way of winking at (but not picking on) the denominations of modern-day Christianity...and showing that there is still division in Christianity. Definitely had zippo idea of picking on Gnostics at all. Didn't have them in mind, at all at all at all. Just wanted to show that it is so much a part of human nature for people to stick to ethnic prejudices and habits that even when they believe they have the Creator's Lost Book -in this case, the Bible-- they add their racism, issues, agendas, to it. Just as the Angleni who also have the lost book (whites) added their own racial prejudices to their interpretations.

At the end of the book, the dark people have indeed accepted the words of the Creator. It's not that they haven't. But they have, like the light people, imbued it with their prejudices as the Angleni have.

These are issues minority Christian communities have had to deal with. They may not connect to the non-religious reader or to those who believe other religions such as Wicca (or religions generally accepted in American fantasy) so I can understand the sneers. But a large portion of American Christian minorities do consider these "do I want to accept the religion of my oppressors?" issues important. Don't know if you've ever checked out www.wcgip.org or www.wiconi.org Both excellent sites dealing with Christian indigenous peoples.

Anyway, that's why the book is so liked by the academic, multicultural Christian, and feminist communities. I have no doubt those who dislike Christianity might have a problem with it. But it has been said that a book is a conversation between soul and spirit. And basically it was my Christian spirit arguing with my African-American soul and writing a book that came from that conversation. Black folks understand it. Native Americans understand it. Maoris understand it. It'd be good if white Christians understood it. Or whites, period.

Thanks. -C

CaroleMcDonnell said...

Charlotte:

Thanks for your comments. Corrections, though:
1) re: typicality: While rape may be typical for epic fantasy, it's a part of the American black slavery history that still needs to be explored in literature. Certainly the whole Duke University Rape case issue last year was contingent on the racist question: can a black woman -- even worse, a black woman stripper-- be raped?
The sexual violation of black women is important even now.

Black female sexual pain is not explored in American christian fantasy. So if it's old hat to readers of epic fantasy, should writers of another genre not write it? Should readers of another genre not read it and learn something and widen their mind a bit?

2) No, nowhere does it say the Creator has allowed the Angleni to triumph because they have the right path. At the end of the book, everyone is on the "right path." The Creator gives three reasons for the triumph of the Angleni:

A) The main character murdered someone he should not have. (Political reason, or poetic justice)

B) The land is full of infanticide. (That was my little pro-life bit there. This was the reason the land was given to a new people.)

C) The people of the land do NOT like talking to the savior personally...they always want to trust their shaman, priests, minister, etc to be the intermediary.

I appreciate that you tried to read the book and understand that not every book is for everyone. But yours are the kind of sweeping wrong statements that people tend to make when they haven't completely read a book. My book may be silly to you but it is a Biblical Christian multicultural fantasy about Black women's pain. You may understand this...but the Bible-believing fantasy readers below the Mason-Dixie line also need to read it. And what's old to you...was new to them. And from the many reviews I received...I believe it touched the hearts of many Christian minority readers out there. -C

Neth said...

-Carole

These issues that you speak of sound extremely interesting and worth exploring, and my thoughts right now are that I really wish you would have gotten more into this in the first 100 pages of the book - I would likely have been inspired to continue if it were the case. Anyway, I'm thinking that I'll give it another shot after I let the proper distance from this experience sets in.

CaroleMcDonnell said...

Hi Neth:

Actually, it's possible that the only reason Publishers Weekly gave WF a good review and Library Journal recommended it for Black History month was because they allowed themselves to be unfairly influenced by actually finishing the book. Such things happen. And if that was what happened, we should remind them and all the many reviewers and bloggers who truly liked WF that they should beware of actually being influenced by a completing the book they are reviewing. -C

charlotte byrd said...

Carole,

I'm amused that you're still here talking about this book. i thought it was bad form for writers to defend themselves to critics. Do as you will, though.

I don't object to rape in fiction because it's overdone just in epic fantasy, I object to it because it's often used, and used wrongly, as shorthand for "Character/Group X is bad. how do we know? Look at them raping!" or, even more annoyingly, as a lazy (on the writer's part) impetus for characters to learn and grow, like I said. I rarely see rape depicted in fiction where it's not done out of laziness or in such a way that it benefits the story or does credit to the author.

Exploring the realities of rape in literature might work, but it takes a writer of immense skill to do it without running into the problems typical of the use of rape in ANY genre.

I'm well aware of the history you cite, being a black woman raised Christian myself, and I still feel this way.

I find your ploy to do an end run around my opinions kind of sad. You seem to feel that I must not be black or understand Christianity in order to feel the way I do about what I read in your book. Sorry that's not the case.

I don't still have my copy of your book, or else I would quote the passage about the Angleni that I mentioned. You may not have INTENDED it to read that way, but it did to myself and the people I read it to. You may feel my statements are sweeping and wrong, but they're based on what I read. I cannot imagine anything coming before or after those passages that would have made me feel differently about them. You feel differently because the book is your baby. But you can't hold everyone's hand through it and, if they get something out of the book you didn't intend, you can't come yell at ALL of them and tell them that they are wrong and not reading correctly. That won't be of any use to you or the readers.

Neth,

Sorry to get so long-winded in your space. But I was moved to comment because I saw so many people showing up to say that the book was great and it seemed that you might indeed feel lonely. I keep trying to psych myself up to writing reviews on my blog (the only reason I have a blog at all), but most of my opinions on books are harsh. I haven't taken the plunge because of something like this happening. Maybe I should, anyway. Certain books could use a dose of reality.

Neth said...

-charlotte

No worries about getting long winded around here - I am really enjoying the discussion. I especially enjoy watching you and Carole go back and forth a bit as it can bet tricky for me as an upper-middle class white male in a discussion about a book tackling the weighty topics of race, gender, and religion.

As a reviewer, this discussion has caught me a bit off-guard since authors often don't respond in this way to reviews, but anytime I publically put out an opinion like this I need to be prepared to back it up and respond when it's challenged or otherwise questioned. Personnly, I'd like to see more harsh opinions on books out there, so I'd be interested in following your blog.

J. M. Butler said...

Interesting. I actually have read this book. Speaking from personal experience, I'd say that it would be a good one to keep reading. I really enjoyed it and found it to be a quick read. Loic and Satha both grew on me as the story progressed. I guess I thought that the seeming contradictions in the first person narrators was because it was being told from a fair period of time since the story happened. The book reminded me a great deal of some of the African folk fiction I've read, which may have been a part of what McDonnell was moving toward. I guess I can relate though to feeling like a book isn't quite finished. I felt that War and Peace should have been a couple hundred pages shorter, basically being in need of some major condensing.

If you do end up finishing it, will you write about your additional thoughts? I would be interested in hearing what you have to say. I realize that a great deal of how people respond to literature depends on their preferences and experiences, etc., and that what some people love others will hate. But I would still be curious in hearing what you have to say about the book as a whole.

This seems like a very neat blog. I'll be adding it to my favorites list.

charlotte byrd said...

The last thing I'll say about this issue is this: why do so many seem surprised that a person can judge a book even if they haven't read it all the way through? If a book is uninteresting or annoying int he first 100 pages, why should a reader keep slogging through in the hopes that it will better later? That may work people with more patience and time than I have, but there are too many good books in the world for me to waste time reading one I'm not liking. And opinions on why readers put books down in the middle are very valuable. If I've gone to all the trouble to buy a book and set aside time to read it, then I'm not going to put it down idly. Neither will I keep picking it up if the book doesn't give me a reason to.

In short, reviews of a book not read all the way through are perfectly valid, as long as the reviewer is upfront about that.

John (Grasping for the Wind) said...

Brett

FYI - Covers are determined by publishers, not by authors. It is likey McDonnell had little say in that matter. So don't blame her for a publisher's decision.

All,

I reviewed this book when it first came out and liked it. I think it helped that I am well read in Christian fantasy, the Bible, and other fantasy. It also helped knowing McDonnell's spiritual and cultural background. If you know that, even to a small extent, you see why the book came out written the way it was.

In truth, this is a love it or hate it book, and no review can really do it justice. You'll just have to try it. (and leave your preconceptions at the door please).

Alice said...

I think it's perfectly legitimate to review books you couldn't finish (as long as you admit this, of course, not just pretend to have read the whole thing!). Quitting halfway through due to lack of enjoyment is as valid a reaction as any other.

Jen said...

not related to the book, i just wanted to say i am very happy to see a civil argument. i just witness a not-so-civil argument (publisher vs reviewer) on a website this morning and it wasn't pleasant. you would think that working for a publisher ensures some pr knowledge... nope, it doesn't.

offtopic over.

Chris, The Book Swede said...

I think this was a perfectly legitimate review, and the follow-up post by the author really irritated me -- to the point that I twice wrote replies only to have them close on me as I, without thinking, clicked on some other site's more interesting comments section.

The arrogance, and the hypocrisy in the follow-up is quite amusing, in a malamused sorta way.

Anyway, good review, and if your review was "unfair", I'd have loved to have seen Alice review it ;)

~Chris

reading said...

I'm coming to this game late in the discussion, and I won't write anything on its substance.

However, I wanted to chime in agreement on the wish for more negative reviews out there. If the only indication of poor quality is that a book has fewer positive reviews, then as a read I have a hard time learning what to avoid.

If a reader doesn't like a book and tells me why, I can avoid the book if I know the same issues are problems for me. If they aren't a problem for someone else, they also learn something.

And as a totally gratuitous plug, I am unafraid to give a bad review over on my site.

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