Enter into Neth Space and you will find thoughts and reviews of books and other media that fit the general definition of speculative fiction. This includes the various genres and sub-genres of fantasy, science fiction, epic fantasy, high fantasy, hard sci-fi, soft sci-fi, new weird, magical realism, cyberpunk, urban fantasy, slipstream, horror, alternative history, SF noir, etc. Thoughts are my own, I'm certainly not a professional, just an avid reader avoiding his day job.
reason I still manage to be surprised when the book I’m reading tends to fit in
with whatever conversation is currently going on in the SFF-intranets world.
The conversation of the moment is all about grimdark, the term that seems to
have emerged to describe the ‘gritty’ fantasy that maybe even could be called
its own sub-genre (hereareafewlinkstogetyoustarted on the discussion).
But, I’m not going to quibble about the definition of grimdark, how appropriate
it is attach the label to author X or Y’s books, or any of that. But, the book I
am here to discuss – The Folly of the
World by Jesse Bullington (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon) – arguably
falls right in with the new kid dressed all in black at the back of the genre
party who is buy angrily staring down everyone while (s)he trims his/her
fingernails with a large knife.
The Folly of the World was wholly unexpected for me – I had heard good things about
Bullington’s writing, but really didn’t know anything about it when I started
the book (I hadn’t even read the back cover). So, it took me quite a while to
figure out how felt about the book – honestly it took until after I finished reading
it. The first thing that literally slaps the reader in the face is the very
coarse language of the book, particularly in the first half. In the context of
the book, it works, though it is above and beyond the coarseness of 99% of the
books in fantasy. The dialogue is harsh, ugly and offensive. The descriptions
are dark, evocative and unpleasant. And there are graphic descriptions of sex –
man on man sex – that is needfully violent rather than sensual and loving.
adjusting to the ruthless writing style I began to wander just where this novel
was going. First, it’s not epic fantasy or even second world fantasy. It’s
really much more historical fiction, or gothic horror (if gothic horror can
apply to a setting in medieval Holland), with only the barest hints of the
supernatural. In fact, I have no idea if there really is any supernatural
element in the novel – and it doesn’t matter. The hints serve to increase the
horror, set the mood, and relentlessly drive home the inevitable and hopeless
end – or at least the perception of an inevitable and hopeless end.
this review I’ve used words like ruthless, horror, relentless, hopeless, harsh,
coarse, dark, and …grimdark. The world is violent. There is death. There are
battles. Horrible things are said and done. One could choose to describe things
as tragic, and they wouldn’t be wrong, though I think folly is the better
choice as the title itself clearly alludes to. The story shown, the actions and
thoughts undertaken are often far too absurd to be anything but folly. The
story at its heart is about a bastard seeking his noble birthright. Or perhaps
it’s two highwaymen working a con to become noble. Or maybe it’s a rags to
riches story. As expected, things don’t go as planned, but one of those cons
does become noble, a peasant is lifted to the heights of society, and the fall
from the edge is precipitous.
that Bullington chooses to tell his story through is important. The two conmen
I mention above are front and center, though the real story is that of a
peasant girl who is literally bought and paid for to help them recover a lost
object. These three make up a motley trio representing the worst of the worst
in society and genre alike. The two men are homosexual lovers, one is a bastard
and the other is severely mentally ill. Both are killers. One will do and say
anything to achieve his goals while the other is madly unpredictable. The girl
is an uneducated peasant sold into service. She is harsh, violent, and a
survivor. Horrible things happen – yet the girl is never raped and remains ‘pure’
through to the very end. It’s all gritty, dark and grim. There are very real conflicts,
there is betrayal and death. Characters are wounded and they rise and fall from
tragic archetypes to simple folly, though the usual, the obvious, doesn’t
happen. There is much that can be said to all this – Bullington’s writing is
layered with thematic depth and historical context. And frankly, I didn’t get it
(at least not all of it). I typically consider that a good thing as it shows
the book has deeper context and meaning than can be easily gained. And for that
context, I recommend reading Indrapramit Das’s review over at Strange Horizons,
it goes farther and deeper than I could ever hope to.
So far this
review has meandered, only hinted at plot and character, and gained and lost
momentum. In this, it mirrors The Folly
of the World. The Folly of the World
starts out fast, slows in the middle, only to pick up pace again toward the
end. In all honesty, I almost did not finish this book. I kept waiting to see
where the book was going, when that twist would occur. One twist occurred, and the
second I kept waiting for felt like it never happened. Yes there were events
and happens of importance to the story, but not at the level I was expecting
(or hoping for?). With less than a hundred pages until the end I put the book
down and seriously questioned whether I should bother continuing. I wish I
could say that I felt that I had to know the end, but really I only continued
because I felt that I had put in a lot of time already and just a bit more to
finish it off made sense. I simply didn’t care – the title indicates that it’s
the folly of the World, perhaps indicating a story of great significance to the
world itself. It’s not. In fact it’s barely even significant in the dusty
forgotten historical context it’s presented in. It’s only significant to the
actual characters of the book.
I think this fits with the book. The book is folly, it’s the folly of humanity.
It’s about unexpected love and dedication. It shows that what is important and
significant varies greatly by perspective. It’s a book that the reader must
love to hate and hate to love. It’s a
book that works best when one can’t decide if it should be finished or not.
That’s the folly of the book as well as the story within.
Did I enjoy The Folly of the World? That’s an answer
I’m still searching for, but overall I think I can only say marginally. Do I appreciate
The Folly of the World? Yes, Yes,
YES. What Bullington does in this book is masterful, especially in the context
of the conversation occurring in genre right now around grimdark, what it is
and what, if any, value it brings. It’s a harsh truth, it’s a lot of harsh
truths, it’s folly, it’s no easy journey to take, and not everyone will finish
it. This only increases the ultimate value, if not necessarily its overall
Today I was bored, or more correctly procrastinating. So, I wanted to look at things a big differently. Basically, I looked at all the books I've received digitally and physically over the past 6 months or so and I noted the gender of the author. Now, this is not a good sample in that some of these books were requested, though the vast majority are not. Some of the digital books were purchased rather than provided, and with the digital books I often do more selecting rather than simply receiving. Also, there is some overlap where I have both digital and physical copies of books. None of those factors were controlled for, but I think that it doesn't take away from the overall numbers that certainly prove interesting.
In the last 6 months I've received 79 digital books and 103 physical books, for a total of 182 books.
Total = 79
Male Author = 51
Female Author = 28
Percent Male = 65%
Percent Female = 35%
Total = 103
Male Author = 77
Female Author = 26
Percent Male = 75%
Percent Female = 25%
Total = 182
Male Author = 128
Female Author = 54
Percent Male = 70%
Percent Female = 30%
There are some interesting trends to note - the books that publishers choose to physically send me are overwhelmingly male authored, and more so than the digital books that I take a more active role in selecting. But, looking at the numbers here, it's not surprising that I read more male authors than female authors (last year I read about 65%-35% male to female authors). I'd have to work pretty hard to do otherwise. Now, obviously that statement comes with a lot caveats and such and does not take into account the hundreds of books I have at home to select from and such, but I still think it's not a coincidence.
Of course, if I read more male authors than female authors, it only makes sense for publishers to send me more books written by men, doesn't it? So, we come to a chicken/egg issue - do I read more male authors because that's what is sent to me, or do I get sent more male authors because I read more male authors? Sure, the answer is way more complicated, but I still think it's an important issue to look at.
But anyway, I think the take-home point should be this. If a goal is to get more reviews for SFF books authored by women, particularly for the case of male reviewers, then the problem become clear. No improvement will be made if the publishing machine (publicists, authors, editors, etc.) sends out books as they do now with 75% of them being authored by men and only 25% authored by women.
Lady Business has done a study of author gender and SFF review blogs again for 2012, as she did for 2011, though this time her sampling methods are more statistically robust and should paint a more representative picture of the state of things. The results are not surprising or mind boggling - if you are a male reviewer, you almost certainly review way more books authored by men then women. If you are a female reviewer, you are more likely to review a near equal number or more women authors than male authors. The numbers are striking and telling. Unfortunately it's the same old story.
And, yes, my blog was included in the study, and yes, my blog mirrors the overall trends. According to her numbers, 35% of the authors I reviewed were female (which is at least better than the average of 25% percent female authors for male reviewers). And just as a general FYI, for the 7+-year life of this blog - I've only reviewed about 20% female authors versus 80% male (so, the numbers show that my awareness of the issue is leading to change - which is good).
Anyway, I suggest that you read her post and think on it. It's an important issue and she does a great job of showing why. Especially if you are a male reader/reviewer - think on it.
The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon) defies easy
classification. On one hand it is a standard sort of second-world fantasy that
somewhat fits the definition of epic fantasy– though the standard quest is
shared by 2 enemies and manages to sweep up an innocent bystander. On another
hand, it’s a sort of fantasy western with a modern take on Manifest Destiny-style
attitudes, unchecked development, indigenous rights, etc., and with the
inclusion of machine-based technology, The
Half-Made World is made for slapping the __punk label to it, though I’ve
most often seen cyberpunk or steampunk thrown about, which is a bit
disappointing as I’d expect it to be more of westernpunk, petropunk,
six-shooterpunk, or some other more creative punkness attribute. But most often
The Half-Made World is considered
Weird, or perhaps Weird Western. I can’t help but agree that the weird label
fits it best, though I must admit that it chafes a bit that I’ve decided to
utilize labels to frame start of this review.
Half-Made World physical laws don’t really exist to same extent as in most
second-world fantasy, instead Gilman builds his world based on thematic laws.
The world is only half-made, and the world only becomes made when ‘Western’-style
development occurs, when humans expand their control of the world, and the world
is most fully made once control moves from the hardy (and unsophisticated)
pioneers of the frontier to the full order of the Line. The world is less made,
or even un-made where humans haven’t yet penetrated, where the Folk (think indigenous
people) exist with their indefinable magic and symbiosis with the land.
Opposing the order of the Line is not the disorder of the un-made, but the
near-nihilistic (or perhaps anarchistic or libertarian) Order of the Gun.
It’s in this
worldbuilding that Gilman really shines – yes, this is a wonderfully built
world in the sense of second-world fantasy, but it’s also thematic building.
Gilman makes the worldbuilding so much more than just a setting, but a literary
exercise in its own right. And at the same time, he playfully subverts himself –
for his fully-realized and built world, is only ‘half-made’. The resisting
force to order, is the Order of the
Gun. This playful use of language to subvert the expected and even what Gilman
is attempting to achieve, occurs throughout the book, but is perhaps most
recognizable in the first half or so.
the study on worldbuilding is a study on character, with three focus points,
and arguably a fourth. Liv is the equivalent of psychologist focusing on
madness who unexpectedly (and irrationally?) journeys west for an opportunity
of study. Of course, she is recovering from her own mental illness and has an
unrealized addiction to opium. Creedmore is a charming, charismatic, and deadly
Agent of the Gun. He fills the role of anti-hero as at times he has an apparent
heart of gold, yet he kills with abandon, destruction follows his path, selfishness
rules whenever possible, and yet he’s always beholden to his the spirit-like
force of the Gun and their agenda. Lowery is member of the Line, he is order,
he is conformity, he is the face of the unstoppable force. He struggles with
self and the paranoia of completely controlled environment. The wild-west doesn’t
just unsettle him and the Line, but is its antithesis. A fourth character is
the focus of the quest – The General. The General is mad and damaged beyond
repair from the forever war waged by the Line. The General also is in
possession of the MacGuffin – something that the Line and the Gun both need to
win their ever-ongoing fight and both need to keep out of the hands of their
bitter enemy. This knowledge is buried inside his madness.
character study is not as fully built as the world in terms of the thematic
laws that govern Gilman’s creation, though it’s strong enough to support a
balance. And it throws into view, something I haven’t really discussed yet –
plot. Yes, there is a plot. The plot is strong enough to drive the story,
motivate the characters and survive the world, yet it’s arguably not the point.
Perhaps the plot is the actual MacGuffin here, I’m not sure. It sort of makes
me want wonder what M. John Harrison would think of it all – after all, this
book is either a giant ‘FU’ to Harrison’s views on fantasy and genre, or it’s
the logical next step. It’s probably both, and it’s a bit weird as well, which
generally makes his sort rather pleased. But I digress.
Since The Half-Made World was originally
released in 2010, there are quite a few reviews and other reactions that can be
found. After looking through a few I noticed that the ending is often panned,
or at least highlighted as a relative low point in the book, with almost every
one working in the ‘clever’ half-made ending (or similar) comment. I can sort
of see why, though I think mostly it’s simply that people want an ending to be
a resolution rather than the beginning of yet another adventure. However,
remembering that the building blocks behind the world, the characters and even
the plot are truly thematic blocks, I think that the ‘half-made ending’ can
only be considered entirely appropriate. Though perhaps it functions as a third
MacGuffin to which I can only react with maniacal giggling. Anyway, it’s worth
noting that The Half-Made World is
not a stand-alone and the sequel, The
Rise of Ransom City (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon), is available, so
hopefully the half-made ending will now just be an enticement to continue on that
Gilman is an
author I’ve been hearing good things about for a number of years now, and The Half-Made World has shown me why. It
encompasses much of what it means to be genre, yet subverts the stereotype by
thematically building everything such
that everything has meaning – and the craft that it takes to make it all work
is impressive. And work it does – The
Half-Made World can function as a fun, fantastically weird western and as a stylistic novel with great
thematic depth to be delved, parsed, examined, and even re-made. In that, the
appeal is wide and this book should be widely read. So what are waiting for …