Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Review: The Folly of the World by Jesse Bullington

For some 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 (here are a few links to get you started 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.
After 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.
Throughout 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.
The view 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.
Upon reflection 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 appeal.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Author Gender and Review Blogs x2

Last week I wrote this post, where I point to this post that shows some statistics for SFF Review blogs about how many male authors are reviewed vs. female authors and compares those results with the gender of the bloggers. It's a good post and it's an important thing to remember, so I once again encourage all to read it.
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.
Digital Books:
Total = 79
Male Author = 51
Female Author = 28
Percent Male = 65%
Percent Female = 35%
Physical Books:
Total = 103
Male Author = 77
Female Author = 26
Percent Male = 75%
Percent Female = 25%
All Books:
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.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Author Gender and SFF Review Blogs

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.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Review: The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman

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.
In The 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.
Balancing 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.
This 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 much sooner.
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 … punk!?


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