Fanwork is awesome and sharing fanwork is even more awesome. Join us as we keymash and squee over our favorite fanwork, from fic (both written and podfic) to art to vids and meta and back again. If you find something you love, we encourage you to comment/favorite and let the creator know you enjoyed their work. :D. This week we're also welcoming special guest, BACO, to share her recs with us. ♥
Ancillary Justice — art (1)
Avatar: The Last Airbender — art (2)
Captain America — art (1)
Court of Fives — art (1)
Crossover: Final Fantasy VIII/Final Fantasy XIII — fic (1)
Crossover: Sherlock Holmes/Silent Hill — fic (1)
Final Fantasy VIII — fic (1)
Final Fantasy XIII — fic (1)
Fullmetal Alchemist — meta (1)
Hamilton — art (1)
Hannibal — meta (1)
IDW Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye — art (1)
Like many of you, I have a TBR problem. As in, books to be read, as in, way too many of them — and an inability to stop buying more. Some people have a TBR stack, or a TBR shelf. Me? I have a TBR bookcase.
I don't have a problem. Not in the slightest.
So to start making a dent in the pile, I decided to set myself a challenge. At least once each month, I'll pull a book that's been languishing on my TBR, read it, and review it here. In order to qualify for Tales from the TBR, at least one of the following conditions must be met:
I must have owned the book for at least two years.
It must have been published at least five years ago.
It must be a book in a series that I haven't touched for two years or more.
Let's get this party started, shall we?
The book:The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whelan Turner, which qualifies on both the second and third criteria -- it was published in 2000, and I read The Thief, the first book in the series, several years ago.
When Eugenides, the Thief of Eddis, stole Hamiathes's Gift, the Queen of Attolia lost more than a mythical relic. She lost face. Everyone knew that Eugenides had outwitted and escaped her. To restore her reputation and reassert her power, the Queen of Attolia will go to any length and accept any help that is offered...she will risk her country to execute the perfect revenge. ...but Eugenides can steal anything. And he taunts the Queen of Attolia, moving through her strongholds seemingly at will. So Attolia waits, secure in the knowledge that the Thief will slip, that he will haunt her palace one too many times. ...at what price? When Eugenides finds his small mountain country at war with Attolia, he must steal a man, he must steal a queen, he must steal peace. But his greatest triumph, and his greatest loss, comes in capturing something that the Queen of Attolia thought she had sacrificed long ago…
How I found it: I was first recommended this series by my old fandom friend Parron. Her rec was enthusiastic enough that I read The Thief almost right away; I liked it well enough, but not so much that I was compelled to continue.
What inspired me to read it now: I finally got around to buying The Queen of Attoliay earlier this year, when one of my favorite used bookstores lost its lease. Sad at this occasion was, I used the moving sale as an opportunity to snap up anything that looked promising, and this book was one of my finds. Then, a few weeks ago, renay started reading it for Fangirl Happy Hour, which prompted much discussion and ultimately spurred me on to choose it as my inaugural book for this feature.
The verdict: Well....
It's a good book. I want to say that right away because I really do feel that way. It's got one of the most intricately constructed political intrigue plots I've ever seen, and the author pulls off a number of convincing twists. There are two excellent, powerful, and starkly different female characters — the titular queen and her rival, the queen of nearby Eddis — and the conflict and contrasts between them makes for a fascinating character study. The long-standing friendship between Eddis and Eugenedes ("Gen"), the third main character, is well-developed and satisfying. All things I admire; the politics, particularly, kept me turning the pages.
And yet. Even though I've been wanting to kick off this feature for awhile, I hesitated to write this review. Although I liked the book pretty well, I can't say I loved it, yet so many people whom I love and respect adore this book and count it among their favorites. (Is it weird to feel like you've let people down, when you don't love the books that are important to them?) As mentioned above, I can appreciate the ways in which the book is well crafted. But a number of things — personal, idiosyncratic things, didn't work as well for me.
In the end, as it so often does for me, it comes down to characters. I've always said that I'm a character-driven writer, and the same is true of my reading — when I'm drawn to a book (or a movie or a video game or whatever), it will almost always be through forming a connection with the characters and investing in the relationships between them. I'll forgive many narrative sins if I fall in love with the characters. On the flip side, if I can't connect with the characters, it becomes much harder for me to sink into a story and get invested, no matter how well plotted or executed, or how interesting the ideas.
Unfortunately, there were a number of ways in which I felt The Queen of Attolia kept me at arm's length from the characters. First, large chunks of this book are written in an expository style. That's a sensible choice, given how much time the story covers, but I find that the lack of immediacy in an expository narrative often imposes more distance than I like. Also, in order to preserve the aforementioned plot twists, the author often keeps the characters' thoughts and emotions hidden from the reader. I can appreciate the need for this trade-off, but I noticed a number of moments where we could have been allowed a closer look without much loss of suspense. Finally, many of the characters don't even have proper names — the two queens are always referred to by the names of their nations, and courtiers are often identified via title or their relationship to the queen they serve; even Eugenides isn't a given name but the name of the god of thieves, a mark of his role in Eddis's court. This choice also helps distance us from the characters to whom we should be the most sympathetic.
All that said, I do still find The Queen of Attolia a worthwhile book, and despite my complaints above, I'm still interested enough in the world and the characters that I plan to keep reading. And maybe it won't take me another several years this time.
What's a Word Worth is a new column by justira about the mechanics of writing. In this column, I examine the actual writing of every single book I read, focusing on how it conveys meaning and whether the writing works for me as an editor, reader, and fellow writer. My analysis will be based on the Peircian semiotic framework, explained in the first few posts of the column.
"There is difference and there is power. And who holds the power decides the meaning of the difference."
—June Jordan, Technical Difficulties (1994, p. 197)
So! New column! And I thought I'd start things off by digging into how words mean.
What exactly do I mean by that? What does it have to do with evaluating writing? Well, when I write the word "cat", how do you know what I mean? What kind of cat do you imagine? What would an alien imagine? Or, when I say "this is blue, that is red", how do you know what "this" and "that" refer to? (Or what "blue" and "red" are, for that matter!) When a writer writes, "this surgeon is a butcher," how do you get the idea that this surgeon is really bad at their job, rather than actually being someone who cuts up animal meat for food on the side? Metaphor is a powerful writing tool, and I can tell you how it works.
Language can also be used to signify belonging to a group and draw group boundaries — think of the boundaries drawn by use of the word "queer". Who's allowed to use that word? To refer to themselves? To others? Who objects to the term? Are they part of the same groups? Language is a key resource for asserting and realizing group identities to achieve social and political goals(1). Similar mechanics in turn can be used by authors to signify belonging to a certain school of SFF, or by characters in dialogue to show they belong to specific groups or classes.
My degree is in linguistics, and I wrote my undergraduate thesis on semiotics(2), which, put plainly, is the study of how words mean; this background informs all of my thinking as a writer, reader, and editor. I plan to use this column to analyze writing, and I wanted to let you into my process and background. Plus, I think this stuff is fascinating. So! The first few posts in this column will rehash the first chapter of my thesis for a general audience, and I will refer back to the concepts and terminology when I finally dig into analyzing authors' writing.
Just to be clear, you don't have to read through all this semiotics stuff to understand my breakdowns of other people's writing. However! I want to share this stuff because (a) it's my passion and I find it fascinating and (b) I find it to be a useful framework for analysis. So if you're curious, read on!
First, some housecleaning: some of you may have heard of semiotics before, or semiology. This was almost certainly the dyadic framework of Saussure. The semiotics I'll be covering here is the — in my ever so humble and biased opinion — much more interesting and accurate triadic framework of Peirce. I'll explain the differences later, but just wanted to be clear up front: this isn't the signifier/signified Saussure stuff you may have seen before.
Now we're ready to go!
Signs and Meaning
Semiotics is the study of how signs mean, how sign processes work, and how signification and communication happens. But what's up with that definition? First of all, what is a "sign"?
Well, that depends on who you ask. For our purposes: A sign is anything that stands for something else to someone, somewhere, in some capacity. If you think that definition is broad, then good! It is! Words are a type of sign. Actual literal signs, like bathroom signs or road signs, are a type of sign. Emoji are signs. A footprint can be a sign, because someone can read it to mean that someone stepped foot there, and perhaps make guesses about the characteristics of that person, like their weight and shoe size. Signs are a very broad category!
So how can we have any idea how signs mean if they're such a broad category? Don't all those different types of signs mean what they do in completely different ways?
There is actually a very sensible system underlying the chaos. In the Peircian semiotic framework, there are basically three ways signs mean what they do. Peircian semiotics provides a powerful, articulate vocabulary and framework for understanding and analyzing how meaning is made and understood(3).
Peirce vs. Saussure on the Sign
Saussure and Peirce had very different conceptions of the sign, and before we go forward I want to make sure we're properly oriented.
Saussure's sign is dyadic, consisting of the signifier — such as the sound of the word "dog" — and the signified — the idea of dog triggered upon exposure to the signifier. But why, when hearing "dog," do I think of dogs, or a particular dog? The link between signifier and signified is arbitrary: that is, it is due to a social convention rather than any "natural" connection. Saussure made much of the arbitrariness of the signifier-signified relationship, because, come on, isn't it kind of weird that we all think of more or less the same sort of thing when we hear a certain collection of sounds or see a certain collection of written shapes? So far, so good, but Saussure dismissed as uninteresting any other modes of signification. So remember how I said road signs, emoji, and footprints are all signs? We can interpret emoji, for example; could an alien? Well, Saussure thinks they're not something linguistics should study; he finds them boring(4).
Peirce doesn't. And seeing as those kinds of meaning are part of how powerful things like metaphors work, I think Peirce is right.
Saussure's approach to signs and signification emphasizes autonomous, arbitrary systems and takes language as the primary and ideal model of such system. Peirce thinks there's more to it.
Peirce defines a sign in the broadest and most flexible terms as something that stands for something else to somebody in some capacity (CP 2.228)(5)(6). As such, anything can and does function as a sign as soon as someone takes it to mean or refer to something. There is no inherent meaning to a sign: it only functions as a sign once someone is there to interpret it. Moreover, for Peirce, the sign itself is not a self-evident idea or entity but a catalyst for an effect(7), such as the alarm I feel when I hear a police siren or the certain idea that springs up in my mind when I hear the word "cat". Both of those are signs; both are catalysts for effects. A fundamental premise here is that the sign has to create an effect, called the interpretant, within the living being who is the recipient of the sign: nothing is a sign unless it is interpreted as a sign by someone. This premise precludes the abstract assigning of meanings as in Saussure; there is no inherent meaning in a sign, only meaning in context.
This immediately raises questions about sentience, sapience, aliens, what have you! (I told you this would be interesting from an SFF perspective.) So who can interpret a sign, giving it its essential sign-ness? Now, if any of you are getting shades of quantum mechanics, well! You are quite right!
For those unfamiliar, there is a famous quantum mechanics experiment called the double-slit experiment or the two-slit experiment. You shoot particles, like photons or electrons, at a screen with two slits in it, and observe what pattern forms on the detector on the other side of the screen. If the electrons act as matter, they should go through one slit or the other and form two bars on the detector, corresponding to the two slits. If the electrons act like waves, they'll go through both slits and form an interference pattern of many light and dark bars. Now, if you only look at the detector on the other side of the screen, you'll see an interference pattern, meaning the electrons are acting like waves. Which is weird! Electrons are matter! However, if you set up some way to observe the electrons and detect which slit they go through, you will get the two-bar pattern. Whether the electron acted like a particle or a wave depended on whether it was being observed. This is known as collapsing the wave function. So who counts as an observer? There is actually a pretty cool book about exactly that question: The Flicker Men by Ted Kosmatka. If the weirdness of quantum mechanics interests you, I recommend that book. I'll probably also cover the writing in it in this very series.
So in quantum mechanics, everything is about potential: an electron has the potential to act as a wave or as a particle, depending on whether it is observed or not. Similarly, according to Peirce, something can have the potential to act as a sign, and only becomes concretely a sign if it is observed and interpreted. We'll return to the question of how exactly this process happens — how the wave function of a sign is collapsed by the act of signification — in a later installment in this series.
Peirce's framework will provide us with a way of classifying signs according to how and why they mean or signify, but it is important to remember that the categorization of any given sign is not inherent, but is instead dependent on the context and the interpreter. Peirce's theory of signs was meant to illuminate how people experience the world, and make concrete the very process of thought. That's right: semiotics describes not just how words mean, but how thought occurs. Such is the process (note that this is an activity, not an idea per Saussure) of semiosis, where one sign effects an idea that in turn becomes a sign for a different idea, and so on. This is semiotic chaining, which models, among other things, the process of thought. It also models writing and reading.
The Main Trichotomies: The Three Modes of Being
First up: everything with Peirce is about threes, triadic relations, trichotomies. So expect lots of groups of three coming up!
Peirce's semiotic framework depends on the central categorization of all phenomena into three modes of being. This basic trichotomy is the organizing principle by which the rest of Peirce's semiotics framework is structured. I'm going to outline it briefly here, then come back to it after the other posts in this Peirce series, once we have a lot more examples to work from.
There are, then, three modes of being: Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness. Firstness is the realm of pure quality and possibility. Firstness exists in and of itself, without relation to and independent of any second entity or particular instance of those things — just the idea or quality of them. Firstnesses are simplex and immediate, and we also never meet true Firstness in our mundane world. Examples might be blueness or Americanness or fear independent of any particular instantiation. It is highly significant to note that Firstnesses are not necessarily "natural" or themselves non-semiotic: Americanness, for example, is socially constructed and socially relative. Blueness, for that matter, is socially constructed, too: there is a whole body of work on colour relativity and the idea that how we not only name but perceive colour is culturally influenced. In fact, there's evidence that humans didn't even see the colour blue as a separate colour (that is, have a conceptual category for it) until relatively recently, and even things we're used to thinking of as blue, like the sky, are culturally influenced.
There is a very powerful corollary to this: who is it that determines these categories? Who says something is "the same" enough to be part of the same general idea? We're having debates right at this moment about "Americanness": who can count as an "American" and what "being an American" means. For this, I refer to the quote at the top of this post: "There is difference and there is power. And who holds the power decides the meaning of the difference." The power to determine membership in a Firstness is great indeed, and it belongs both to everyone and to specific individuals like lawmakers, politicians, tastemakers, and other influential people. This is power.
But that's Firstness. There is also Secondness. Secondness is the realm of existent objects, the experience of actual fact, of pure reaction. Secondness is a relation between two entities, unmediated by any third entity. Tables, chairs, roses, spoken words, and everyday objects also partake of Secondness, being instantiations of Firstnesses, and necessarily include and embody Firstness, as a red rose embodies the quality of redness. An instinctive reaction of pure startelement is Secondness. If I were to react to something large and dark with pure, thoughtless fear, I would be experiencing Secondness.
However, if I stopped to think about it (thus mediating my response), I might be able to consider why I am afraid and what exactly it is that I'm afraid of. This is touching upon the realm of Thirdness Thirdness involves the mediational capabilities of a thinking entity to form general, law-like relationships between two other things. This is the domain of habit, reflection, and, indeed, representation — as we will see, representation necessarily involves mediation between an object and what the sign stands for. When we habitually associate, by convention, one thing with another, we partake of Thirdness. So for example associating the word "dog" with the idea of dog is Thirdness. I will explain this in further detail in future posts, where I can give more examples. So, coming back to our example: Although earlier I experienced Secondness in the form of unreasoning fear at seeing a strange, large, dark shape approach, when I realized it was my faithful dog, whom I associate with safety and protection, this association and its effect of calming my fear was due to Thirdness.
This foundational trichotomy underlies and informs the rest of Peirce's semiotic. Don't worry if it seems a bit vague right now: future posts will give further examples. Equipped with this basic categorization, we can move on to another central trichotomy: that of the sign-relation itself.
The Main Trichotomies: The Sign-Relation
A sign-relation is composed of three basic semiotic elements(8): the representamen, the object, and the interpretant. (Fig 1.1). The representamen is what we commonly call the sign. If we look at a weathervane and assume it indicates the direction of the wind, then the weathervane itself is the representamen. Likewise, if I were to say the word "dog", referring to a certain type of domesticated mammal, and it brought to mind for you the idea of a dog, then the word "dog", my particular use of it in that instance, is here the representamen. Representamena are a kind of Firstness, as they exist in and of themselves. Though a representamen only functions as a sign in the full context of representamen-object-interpretant, its existence as a thing with the potential to mean something is independent of any other element.
The object is the entity stood for by the sign, the thing to which the representamen refers, or the thing that caused the shape of the sign. It can be a concrete object, such as a particular dog, or an abstract idea, such as the idea of dog in general. When I say "dog", do you think of a particular dog, or of dogs in general? This is a question we'll come back to later. For the weathervane we discussed earlier, the object is the wind that caused it to turn in a particular direction. Notice that objects cannot be accessed directly, but must be referred to by a representamen. Even the act of seeing something, which we might think of as a natural and non-relational act, does not directly access the observed object. When I look at a horse, I do not see the horse itself, but rather the light that has bounced off the horse's form and into my eyes. This light-image is my representamen for the object, the horse itself. We will return later to this dyadic relationship between sign and object in great detail, but for now it is only necessary to observe that, because this relation is dyadic, it is Secondness.
The interpretant is the effect of the sign in/on the observer, what we might call the "sense" or meaning made from the sign. This can be a feeling (a Firstness), a physical reaction (a Secondness), or a complex idea articulated in linguistic terms (a Thirdness). If we take "The Star-Spangled Banner" as a whole as a sign, then it might create in us feelings of pride or hatred; cause us to cry or smile or feel anger; or bring to mind complex ideas like "home", "country", nationalism, patriotism, or imperialism(9). The interpretant involves a triadic, mediated relationship with the sign and object; it is a type of Thirdness.
This is the fundamental structure of the sign-relation. There are further categories for types of signs and the kinds of relationships that exists between representamena, objects, and interpretants. We'll get to these in the next posts, and this will allow us to talk about exactly what goes on when something acts as a sign.
For now, here is a review:
Anything that stands for something else to someone in some capacity. Words, bathroom signs, and weathervanes are all signs.
The process by which a sign creates the effect of an idea in the mind of an interpreter.
Something that exists in and of itself; a quality or possibility. Redness and Americanness are Firstnesses.
A relation between two entities, unmediated by any third entity. An existent object, experience of actual fact, or pure reaction are all Secondnesses. Concrete examples would be a table or a reaction of startlement. Secondesses embody and instantiate Firstnesses, as a red rose embodies the quality of redness.
A mediated, law-like relation formed by a thinking entity between two other objects. Associating the idea of dog with the word "dog" is a Thirdness. Most linguistic relations are a type of Thirdness.
What we commonly call the sign. It has the potential to refer to something, but does not actually act as a sign until it is interpreted.
The entity or idea to which the representamen refers.
The effect created by the representamen in the interpreter (the thinking individual observing the sign).
Unfortunately, it has also yielded a terminological complexity that has limited the degree to which distinctly Peircian semiotics have penetrated into linguistics at large and the general audience. Some of Peirce's terms and ideas have leaked into the general vocabulary of anthropology and linguistics. But of these few, most are used with gross imprecision and lack of understanding ("icon", "index", "symbol"), or, when they are used correctly, without the benefit of the framework in which they are rightly embedded ("type"/"token"). The type/token distinction, for example, leaves out the third term ("tone") that forms the trichotomy. This is a significant error because Peircian semiotics is grounded in triadic, rather than dyadic, relations. (back to text)
By scholarly convention, references to Peirce's Collected Writings (1931-58) are formatted as: CP volume.paragraph. (back to text)
Peirce, C. S. (1931-58). Collected Papers (8 vols). Cambridge, Harvard University Press. (back to text)
Turino, T. (1999). "Signs of Imagination, Identity, and Experience: A Peircian Semiotic Theory of Music." Ethnomusicology42(2): 221-255.
Take note that Peircian semiotics can be applied to music! How cool! (back to text)
Sign-relations are, of course, not the only examples of triadic relations. Peirce uses acceleration as another example of a genuine, irreducibly triadic relationship: "Now an acceleration, instead of being like a velocity a relation between two successive positions, is a relation between three." (CP 1.359). (back to text)
Sidetracks is a collaborative project featuring various essays, videos, reviews, or other Internet content that we want to share with each other. All past and current links for the Sidetracks project can be found in our Sidetracks tag.
Earlier this week I looked at my challenge goal which predictably fell apart in April, after my ~whirlwind~ summer began. As pals have told me, my 100 unique women writers project was...optimistic...and 36/100 is pretty darn good. Then I realized I've read 36 new women authors and/or artists (because I count artists and colorists who are integral parts of the emotional of a narrative since I do what I want). That's great! And because I've read those authors now recommendation algorithms spit out drastically different suggestions. It's been excellent; highly recommended project. Maybe set a lower goal, though. LEARN FROM MY ERRORS. Because it turns out the more authors you read the more favorite authors you discover. Back lists are great, but time-consuming!
I haven't quite managed to get back on track everywhere. In fact, I'm going to be surprised if I make it to the end of this column! I have less to review than I otherwise would because I can write reviews of comics and graphic novels but I can't quite bring myself to post them due to Extreme Fear and Anxiety re: the comics community/being yelled at. However, it's not like you're missing much with the absence of my Hot Takes on Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, Vol. 1: BFF, Monstress, Vol. 1: Awakening, or The Vision, Vol. 1: Little Worse Than A Man. I'll just say: give them a try because all are good, one is excellent, and the other made me throttle the universe for not giving me the next issue yet.
Welcome to Readers of the Lost ARC! This project aims to recommend under-read books from the past few decades and to highlight stories that might interest readers looking for that next great book. We're happy to welcome Courtney Schafer back to Lady Business to tell us all about her favorite under-read books from the 1990s. Read on for some cool recommendations!
Ninefox Gambit is a novel built from numbers. Big numbers. Deep space equations.
If, like me, your last encounter with serious maths was in the 90s then Ninefox Gambit may seem a daunting prospect. Stick with it — all those chains of calculation lead to some exciting places. A fortress of impenetrable ice. A spaceship helmed by an undead General. A world in need of change, revenge and justice. Forget those Statistics textbooks you used to doodle in. This is science fictional maths where there's space travel and explosions for everyone!
A page-turning debut in the tradition of Michael Crichton, World War Z, and The Martian, Sleeping Giants is a thriller fueled by an earthshaking mystery—and a fight to control a gargantuan power.
A girl named Rose is riding her new bike near her home in Deadwood, South Dakota, when she falls through the earth. She wakes up at the bottom of a square hole, its walls glowing with intricate carvings. But the firemen who come to save her peer down upon something even stranger: a little girl in the palm of a giant metal hand.
Seventeen years later, the mystery of the bizarre artifact remains unsolved—its origins, architects, and purpose unknown. Its carbon dating defies belief; military reports are redacted; theories are floated, then rejected.
But some can never stop searching for answers.
Rose Franklin is now a highly trained physicist leading a top secret team to crack the hand’s code. And along with her colleagues, she is being interviewed by a nameless interrogator whose power and purview are as enigmatic as the provenance of the relic. What’s clear is that Rose and her compatriots are on the edge of unraveling history’s most perplexing discovery—and figuring out what it portends for humanity. But once the pieces of the puzzle are in place, will the result prove to be an instrument of lasting peace or a weapon of mass destruction?
So a lot of people compare Sleeping Giants to The Martian for reasons I can't really identify besides that they both have science infodumps, but I'm more interested in comparing it to The Iron Giant. In both stories, a child discovers (parts of) a giant robot in the forest behind their house, and both involve politics with Cold War-era sensibilities. But while The Iron Giant is an exercise in caring, Sleeping Giants is an exercise in failing to thrill.
Because let's be clear, Sleeping Giants is more of a political thriller than it is a giant robot story. If you're expecting giant robot action — and I was — you will most likely be disappointed.
Sleeping Giants is told through an epistolary format, composed of interview transcripts, journal entries, media reports, and other documents. I love epistolary books, so I got a kick out of that. However, all of the interviews are between the book's characters and a single unnamed interviewer(1), so we can more or less count him as one of the novel's main characters. Joining him in these interviews are Rose Franklin, Kara Resnik, Ryan Mitchell, Vincent Couture, and Alyssa Papantoniou. I'll come back to them later.
I've read a lot of reviews of this book, trying to pin down why it didn't work for me. Many of the negative reviews mention the book's format and how it made it hard for them to get into the story. They say that the epistolary format put distance between them and the characters: we're always hearing characters describe ("telling") their actions and feelings rather than experiencing those firsthand through narrative ("showing"). I think there's something to this criticism, but I don't think it's the whole story at all. For one, epistolary books can be extraordinarily successful at building emotional resonance. It all depends on the writing. That this epistolary book failed to connect with so many readers says more about Neuvel than about the format. His writing is fast, economical, and easy to sink into, but it doesn't realistically depict dialogue, which is a major flaw when 90% of your book is interview transcripts. It does a good job of conveying the science, which is I think why so many people compare it to The Martian, but in doing so it sacrifices the human touch that makes the science matter.
But this is not what made the novel unsuccessful for me. It is the unnamed interviewer.
This unnamed interviewer is one of the story's greatest strengths and also biggest failings. He's mysterious, cruel, and manipulative, but always seems to be working for the greater good. He doesn't seem to be affiliated with any known world government or private agencies, and yet wields enormous power. And with that power, he solves every problem the plot throws at us. For some people, the epistolary format really is a barrier for getting into the story. But I think for people like Ana, the main problem of this book is what Plinkett in his Star Wars reviews for Red Letter Media(2) called "the dissolution of tension" (transcript of relevant part here, scroll down to item #10). Plinkett analyzed the reason a lot of people couldn't get into the Star Wars prequels as being George Lucas taking all the tension out of the scenes. If there's a problem, the tension is immediately dissolved by either making the problem unbelievable, or presenting a solution right away. Sleeping Giants works much the same way, and let me give you a hint: when you're writing a thriller, you don't want the problems to go away easily. In a good thriller, problems pile on each other and build until the plot crescendoes. In Sleeping Giants, most problems are presented, and then the interviewer solves them right away. The problems are sequential, not additive. The first time or two that the interviewer does this, it works to build his character and speak to the degree of power and control that he has. But when it happens again and again, it weakens the characterization rather than strengthening it, and undermines the tension of the plot. Characters grow through adversity and change. Static characters have their place, but it's usually not forming the backbone of your story.
Put more succinctly, the interviewer, despite his mystery, is more of a statement than a question. Thrillers and mysteries thrive on questions. This book did not thrive.
But what about the other characters? Well, three of them are women, which I would normally count as a good thing. But Sylvain Neuvel has given me reason to distrust his handling of women. He did a list of SFF books with serious science, which I helped grade for Your Book List Will Be Graded. There was one woman on the list, and he said her book had "no real science to speak of". Could he really not think of one sciency book by a woman? Or at least not insult the one he did use? Meanwhile, Sleeping Giants wastes its women on cliches and lack of interaction. Possibly the most offensive in this sense is Kara. Kara Resnik is an Air Force pilot who, together with her co-pilot Ryan, discovers the second piece of the robot when it disables their helicopter on a mission in Syria. Rose Franklin's involvement in the plot is obvious from the jacket copy, but her POV takes a backseat halfway through the book for plot reasons. Vincent is a linguist brought in from Quebec to study the alien symbols discovered with the hand. Finally there is Alyssa, who is given very little screentime and is poorly developed as a mad scientist stereotype. But let's come back to Kara.
Kara is a mouthy lady, not a team player at all, and not interested in the interviewer's bullshit. All this, I like. But she quickly becomes a stereotype as she becomes embroiled in a love triangle with Ryan and Vincent. As a queer poly person in an open relationship, I find love triangle narratives tiresome in general for always being het and for their lack of plurality and symmetry, but I found this one particularly hard to sympathize with. Ryan is an underdeveloped puppy dog, Vincent is not particularly likable, and Kara isn't really given any reason for caring about either of them. In fact, she doesn't seem to particularly like either of them, but it's as if Neuvel couldn't think of another plot for a woman or had no other ideas for establishing the necessary conflict about who pilots the giant robot. This is one case where Neuvel's handling of the epistolary format really fell down for me: that the characters only ever talk to the interviewer about their relationships rather than us seeing them interact with each other. A simple fix for this would have been, for example, transcripts of some of the sessions inside the robot, between Kara and Ryan and/or Vincent, to show how they get along. It can still follow the epistolary format, but lets us actually observe the characters interacting.
This weakness in Neuvel's use of the format also plagued another relationship: that between Rose and Kara. We're supposed to buy that they get very close, and when Rose is removed from the narrative it's supposed to affect Kara deeply. But we never see any of the three women interact, because of Neuvel's choices. Essentially, this book fails the Bechdel test even though it has three female POVs in it.
I haven't talked about Alyssa much. It's hard to without spoilers. On the surface, she's a geneticist from the Balkans brought on as another scientist on the robot team. And she has a stutter. Which is the only speech anomaly depicted on the page and I kind of... side-eye that. Now, my degree is in linguistics, and in my program we studied a lot about transcription and how political it is. No one talks like they write, or like Proper Prescriptivist English says they should. Everyone has a lot of "er"s, "um"s, filler words, and other errata in their speech. Choosing how you transcribe someone can say a lot about both you and them. You can portray someone as uneducated or lower-class simply by including all the filler words and false starts in their speech. You can present someone as very polished and intelligent by choosing to edit that out. Neuvel's transcripts have all obviously been edited for clarity — except for Alyssa's. Her stutter is clearly and explicitly depicted and considering the ultimate trajectory of her character I find this choice... questionable. It's othering in a way that doesn't play nice with her ultimate fate.
I do like one aspect of the epistolary format a lot: the documents we get to see are only pieces — the dossier file numbers of the documents jump ahead at uneven intervals, and I don't think any two files were ever sequential — and we have to assemble them ourselves to see the greater whole, just as the characters in the novel are struggling to assemble the giant robot. It has a nice symmetry to it.
But all of this is about how I couldn't care about the characters and their relationships very much, and that brings me back around to The Iron Giant. The giant robot in that story is sentient, so the characters actually form emotional relationships with it, but that's kind of my point: in that story, you come to care about a machine. In Sleeping Giants, many readers had trouble connecting with the human characters. Of course, The Iron Giant had a few tools at its disposal that Sleeping Giants did not: animation, music, voice acting, colour. But that's my point — The Iron Giant uses its chosen format and medium effectively. I rewatched the movie for this review, and I gotta say y'all: I teared up. I hadn't seen it in a long time, and it was like experiencing it for the first time all over again. The movie takes us firsthand through the discovery of the robot and Hogarth Hughes developing an emotional attachment to it: we see this happen in the masterful animation as they interact onscreen, we're guided to this by the gentle score and carefully chosen colour palettes, we hear this in the characters' voices. The movie uses every tool at its disposal to make us really feel the relationships between the characters and buy the simple message: "You are who you choose to be." Which brings me back to the writing. The writing in The Iron Giant is simple, but effective. Sleeping Giants, on the other hand, doesn't make good use of its medium(3). While the epistolary format works on a couple of levels — in the sense I mentioned above of assembling a puzzle, or to portray the interviewer — it's not very good at letting us experience the story. The most affecting part of the novel for me was the brief bit at the start from Rose's POV that appears to be straight narrative. It also has the best visual, of Rose at the bottom of the pit in the palm of the giant metal hand. That's good writing. But on a simple level of writing, The Iron Giant is superior.
At a certain point, there are deciding moments when we pick who we want to be. And that plays out for the rest of your life. I feel like I got my sense of right and wrong from books and movies. Maybe a movie can be a life preserver for some kid. Any movie that can make us feel like we're all part of humanity is something we need to feel and more and more people don't feel that. Movies and literature provide us with that. That's what great art can do.
Similarly, in Sleeping Giants, the interviews talks about what finding the alien-made giant robot means for humanity:
—My deepest wish is for this discovery to redefine alterity for all of us.
—The concept of “otherness”. What I am is very much a function of what I am not. If the “other” is the Muslim world, then I am the Judeo-Christian world. If the other is from thousands of light-years away, I am simply human. Redefine alterity and you can erase boundaries.
However, the two works take very different approaches to this, with Sleeping Giants being much more cynical. The Iron Giant is all about the joy of companionship and individuality. The implications for extraterrestrial life are not really explored outside the giant itself, but the movie definitely has things to say about souls, humanity, and belonging. In Sleeping Giants, the discovery of the giant robot is shown to largely increase tensions between countries rather than bring people together. One way this could have been addressed, keeping to the epistolary format, is by providing some excerpts of news reports or other stories about people's reaction to the robot becoming public knowledge. This would have really added depth to the storytelling and given a wider view of how the discovery of an alien construct affects humanity. Instead, we get a very narrow view of the situation, and for the most part all the characters except for Rose are pretty blasé about the discovery that we are not alone in the universe.
The political sensibilities of the book form another similarity with The Iron Giant. The climax of the film involves the titular Iron Giant being caught up in a conflict with the US military, who think it is a Soviet device. In Sleeping Giants, political considerations form much of the conflict and tension throughout the book. To retrieve the robot parts from around the world, the US must illegally enter hostile nations' territories. Once the other countries catch on to what the US is doing, there is some conflict about ownership of the robot parts. Once the robot becomes public knowledge, politics dictate everything about how the robot will be handled. All this political maneuvering is sadly executed by caricatures of countries like Russia and North Korea that would feel right at home in The Iron Giant's Cold War era setting. The book ends up largely being a political thriller, written by someone who doesn't understand modern politics.
To add final insult to injury, Sleeping Giants is unlike The Iron Giant in one important way: there's no climactic scene that shows off the robot's capabilities. It's kind of expected in a giant robot story that the giant robot does something, you know? But the climax of this novel is an escape sequence clumsily conveyed in the epistolary format over a phone conversation transcript.
At this point I'd like to discuss a couple of spoilers; mostly things I found inconsistent about the plot. If you haven't read the book, skip the next paragraph.
All in all, Sleeping Giants is not a good example of the giant robot genre. It has an interesting format, some good characterization at the start, and cool scientific explanations for most things. But it fails to have an emotional core, it plays with politics in an amateurish manner while depending on that same interplay for much of its narrative thrust, and it fumbles the epistolary format, especially for the climax. Give it a pass and watch The Iron Giant instead.
The interviewer is never explicitly assigned a gender but I think I remember some characters calling the interviewer "sir", and the author refers to him as male in an interview, so I'll stick with that. (back to text)
The Plinkett character in the Star Wars reviews is an ableist caricature and a violent misogynist. The points he makes about the Star Wars films are good, but I can't really recommend watching the whole thing, or at least not without a HUGE trigger warning. (back to text)
In fact, I hear the Sleeping Giants audiobook is quite good, and in the hands of skilled voice actors I can imagine connecting with the characters much better. (back to text)
Fanwork is awesome and sharing fanwork is even more awesome. Join us as we keymash and squee over our favorite fanwork, from fic (both written and podfic) to art to vids and meta and back again. If you find something you love, we encourage you to comment/favorite and let the creator know you enjoyed their work. :D
Daredevil — fic (1)
Dragon Age — art (1), fic (2)
Ghostbusters (2016) — art (1), fic (1)
Multifandom — vid (1)
Star Trek: The Next Generation — cosplay (1)
Star Wars: The Force Awakens — cosplay (1), fic (2)
At the end of some weeks, we gather at Lady Business HQ to share media thoughts and chat about the recent happenings in our tiny spheres of human experience. Feel free to join in, but note our comment policy if you're new! :D
As always, puns are welcome.
After a successful ~celebration~ of Kate Elliott, what's more fun to wrap things up than a fan cast bonanza of her books? NOTHING. Let's look at some attractive celebrities!
For readers of Brent Weeks and fans of Netflix's Marco Polo comes a rich and inspired fantasy tale of warriors and nobles who must take the most desperate gamble of all: awaken allies more destructive than the hated king they hope to overthrow. Kate Elliott's new trilogy is an unmissable treat for epic fantasy lovers everywhere.
An exiled captain returns to help the son of the king who died under his protection in this rich and multi-layered first book in an action-packed new series.
Twenty two years have passed since Kellas, once Captain of the legendary Black Wolves, lost his King and with him his honor. With the King murdered and the Black Wolves disbanded, Kellas lives as an exile far from the palace he once guarded with his life.
Until Marshal Dannarah, sister to the dead King, comes to him with a plea-rejoin the palace guard and save her nephew, King Jehosh, before he meets his father's fate.
Combining the best of Shogun and Netflix's Marco Polo, Black Wolves is an unmissable treat for epic fantasy lovers everywhere.
I've done tworeviews now that were all about books playing with tropes. It's been a couple of months, so it's definitely time for a new one!
First of all, the cover copy for Black Wolves is dead wrong. Kellas is one of the main characters, but there are five of them, and three are women. Dannarah is arguably most central, and she barely gets mentioned in the copy. But that is the first trope that is being played with! The book starts off with roughly 100 pages of 30-year old Kellas POV, and I think Kate Elliot is doing something here that is similar to what N. K. Jemisin did with Fifth Season (WARNING: Spoilers for said book at the link!): she is giving you an easy in into this world and this story, then pulling the rug out from under you. Well, that is to say: easy in if you go by standard epic fantasy tropes and statistics. Personally I found the first 100 pages hardest to get through because I am just kind of done with fit young cis straight dudes and their drama. But then you turn the page and bam, 59 year old Dannarah. Now things get interesting — and now we really get into a conversation with and about epic fantasy.
Black Wolves, as renay and other reviewers havesaid, plays with a lot of tropes and expectations surrounding epic fantasy. I'm going to divide this into three topics: worldbuilding, power, and gender. Before I continue, I will also say that I have not read the Crossroads books, which are set in the same world. Reading them is not necessary to reading Black Wolves. And now, on to the worldbuilding!
Sidetracks is a collaborative project featuring various essays, videos, reviews, or other Internet content that we want to share with each other. All past and current links for the Sidetracks project can be found in our Sidetracks tag.
Jessamy is moving up the ranks of the Fives — the complex athletic contest favored by the lowliest Commoners and the loftiest Patrons in her embattled kingdom. Pitted against far more formidable adversaries, success is Jes's only option, as her prize money is essential to keeping her hidden family alive. She leaps at the chance to tour the countryside and face more competitors, but then a fatal attack on Jes's traveling party puts her at the center of the war that Lord Kalliarkos — the prince she still loves — is fighting against their country's enemies. With a sinister overlord watching her every move and Kal's life on the line, Jes must now become more than a Fives champion...She must become a warrior.
My name is KJ, and I'm a sports fan.
It feels a little weird to admit that here. My interest in sports isn't something I often talk about in SF/F fandom space, even though I know I'm far from the only fan here. But for a lot of nerdy people, especially nerdy boys, fandom is a place of retreat from the pressure to love sports, play sports, care about sports. I've often seen geeks wear dislike of sports as a badge of honor, taking it as a point of pride that they don't understand the rules of basketball or know who won the Super Bowl or recognize the names of famous athletes.
But me? I enjoy sports — as a spectator, at least, since I'm not remotely athletic. I grew up watching games on TV with my dad, every weekend as the seasons changed. My primary sports fandom is baseball (go Giants!) but I can follow along with any of the four major professional American sports, and I'll give almost anything a try — especially live. And every two years, I plunk myself on the couch for two weeks and absorb as much Olympics as I can (terrible coverage by NBC aside). I love sports for many reasons — the spectacle of the human body pushed to its limits, the teamwork and drama on the field, the sense that anything can happen at any moment, and the sheer levels of emotion involved are all compelling to me. Ever want to see what pure joy looks like? Watch a video of any team celebrating a championship: the hugging and the jumping, the laughter and the tears. I get chills, every time.
Although I would never claim my interest in sports is the only reason I loved Poisoned Blade, and its predecessor Court of Fives, as much as I did, it's certainly one reason, and not an insignificant one. This series is about a young woman and avid athlete named Jessamy, in love with a sporting competition known as The Fives (think gymnastics crossed with an obstacle course and add a healthy dose of American Ninja Warrior, and you're pretty much there). The first book revolves around her determination to compete as an adversary, and the risks she takes to participate despite the disapproval of both her family and society. In the second book, she is rising to the top of the game, battling both politics and her adversaries to seek greater heights. Jes's passion for the Fives, and the ways in which competing has taught her to think strategically, drive much of the action in both books. The thrill of the spectators and the competitive camaraderie among the adversaries are familiar to any sports fan. Kate Elliott is an athlete herself, and her own love of sports and sporting culture comes through here. I would love to watch adversaries run the Fives, and even as a reader I got caught up in the twists and turns of the competition.
Of course, these stories are about much more than the drama on the Fives court — and you certainly don't have to be a sports fan to enjoy them! As much as anything, Poisoned Blade is a political thriller, chock full of conspiracies, conflicting loyalties, and palace intrigue. Elliott draws all the right parallels between the strategies of the game of Fives being played out in front of spectators, and the game of thrones going on behind the scenes, as Jes gets drawn further into the schemes of the high-born Patrons who rule her homeland. The stakes are high in both courts, Fives and royal; a few twists literally took my breath away, and the end changes the game completely.
I also adore the romance, but after being an important focus of Court of Fives, the relationship between Jes and Kal takes a secondary role for most of this book. As much as anything, Poisoned Blade is about Jes's relationships with two of her sisters: her younger sister Amaya, who works within the system to not just survive but thrive, and her twin Bettany, who chafes at her role in society and seeks to escape by whatever means she can. Kate Elliott is at her best when she's writing about the bonds between sisters, in all their complex skeins of friendship and rivalry, and this book is no exception. As the story develops, Jes discovers an unexpected ally in Amaya while clashing with Bettany, and of everything I hope to see in the final book of the trilogy, I'm most eager to see how things among the sisters are resolved — or not.
In short, Poisoned Blade is more than a worthy follow-up to Court of Fives — it builds on the promise of that story, on its intrigue and characters and complex family relationships, and raises the stakes in a way that's satisfying in its own right as well sets the stage for what looks to be an exciting final chapter. So if you've read and enjoyed Court of Fives, definitely pick up the Poisoned Blade. And if you haven't read Court of Fives, what are you waiting for?
The Wild Hunt is stirring and dragons are waking from their long sleep.
Cat Barahal was the only survivor of the flood that took her parents. Raised by her extended family, she and her cousin, Bee, are unaware of the dangers that threaten them both. And although they are poised on the brink of an Industrial Age, magic — and the power of the Cold Mages — still holds sway.
Now, betrayed by her family and forced to marry a powerful cold mage, Cat will be drawn into a labyrinth of politics. There she will learn the full ruthlessness of the Cold Magic rule. But what do they want from her? And who will help Cat in her struggle against their powerful magic?
You might not believe this one, but despite being friends with renay for ten years, I had never read a Kate Elliott book before this one. It wasn't for lack of trying; I have Black Wolves, and I tried to read this one a few years back and just bounced off it. But I circled back around to it, and this time I got sucked in.
Kate Elliott's Cold Magic revolves around Cat Hassi Barahal, a proud member of a family of spies and mercenaries in a fantasy alternate history version of Europe where mage houses squabble with princes for power. She gets non-consensually married off to a member of one of the mage house to pay off a family debt, and spends the rest of the book trying to wrangle mages, the spirit world, and protecting her cousin; the resulting drama is delightful.
(I will be ATTEMPTING to avoid spoilers as far as I can, wish me luck!)
A few years ago after I fell in love with Kate Elliott's Spiritwalker series, I became determined to read all her work because I loved the ideas she was exploring, the makeup of her worlds, and the way she focused on the inner lives of women while still creating interesting men without letting them take over the narrative. According to popular culture, this can be Very Difficult because Dudes are "Normal" and "Easier to Write".
Also, SPOILER: A Passage of Stars totally delivers on the cool leading lady, with some caveats for extremely dubious consent issues re: the central het...romance? I'll return to that point later.
Hello, friends! Recently, the sequel to Court of Fives by Kate Elliott, Poisoned Blade, dropped into the world. You can read it right now from your preferred book retailer or perhaps your public library. :D
To celebrate its release, we're inviting people to get in on the ground floor of the series by giving away a copy of Court of Fives. We're also going to give away a copy of Poisoned Blade to go with it because we're so excited about it. If you haven't tried this series yet, we encourage you to enter. Come suffer with the rest of us as this series tortures our emotions until the release of Buried Heart next year.
To enter, visit http://lady-business.org/#giveaway to fill out the form or click on the images below. This giveaway is open internationally. :) As always with our giveaways, there's an option to share a favorite fantasy series by a lady/non-binary/POC author as part of entering in the comments (per our comment policy). SPOILER: you can share your favorite even without entering! We don't mind!
(Okay, fine, that's not really a spoiler. We're predictable.)
Queer lady geek Clare was raised by French wolves in the American South. more? »
Ira is an illustrator and gamer who decided that disagreeing with everyone would be a good way to spend their time on the internet. more? »
By day Jodie is currently living the dream as a bookseller for a major British chain of book shops. She has no desire to go back to working in the real world. more? »
KJ KJ is an underemployed librarian, lifelong reader, and more recently an avid gamer. more? »
Renay is a long time member of slash fandom and nerdfighteria who stumbled into book blogging by accident and decided she liked arguing with herself at length and in capslock — it was all downhill from there. more? »
Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently over-flowing. more? »