Sunday, January 28, 2007

Dragon Fiction the Wrong Way and the Right Way

Two Dragon Books

“Rhianna” by Michele Hauf and “The Smoke Thief” by Shanna Abe serve as excellent examples of how a dragon book should not be written, and how one should.

I will admit that I picked up Hauf’s “Rhiana” because I’ve always loved the Welsh name “Rhiannon,” even more so once I heard the song by Fleetwood Mac in the 1970s. My dissapointment was immediate, however, when I noticed the main character was a walking stereotype, and that all the other characters were equally two-dimensional. The prose read like something written by a teenager who has read a few too many medieval stories and fairy tales, and the dragons are the only original aspect of the book. Apparently, they require hoards full of gold and jewels because by rubbing against it, they create a layer of dust that sustains them and makes them immortal. Female dragons, or “rampants” are the only dragons who burn humans and their homes, while old, wise male dragons are interested mainly in peace and finding a lifemate. I found that last idea odd in light of the obvious feminist heroine and her constant struggle to be allowed to be a dragon slayer instead of a proper lady who marries, bears children and runs a household.
Rhiana, we learn, is impervious to flame and actually spits fire herself when upset. It becomes evident that she’s the daughter of a dragon/human pairing, but we aren’t treated to the details until the end of the novel. Macarius Fleche, a male dragon slayer, joins up with Rhiana and attempts to bring down the large number of rampant dragons breeding in the salt mines beneath the town. Meanwhile, the town magistrate is using dragon dust to attempt immortality, and having trouble keeping his seemingly “mad” wife from wandering into the dragon caves. Though this book is a “Luna” imprint, and therefore a romance, romance was mainly an impediment to the characters, and not something to be desired.
All the storylines are resolved rapidly in the end, and of course, Fleche and Rhiana agree to a “partnership” as a marriage of equals, which seems as unlikely in the middle ages as dragons mating with humans. I found myself rolling my eyes each time another cliché began to unfold in this novel, and I hoped that the characters would become a bit more original or different as the plot plodded predictably along.

Fortunately, I found a used copy of “The Smoke Thief” and was treated to hours of interesting, original dragon lore and unique characters without a wisp of cliché about them.
The dragons here have been part of a castle in the Carpathian Mountains since the dawn of time. Eventually, humans hew a path up the mountain, and the dragons breed with them to create a new race of being with the power to “turn” from human to smoke to dragon and back again. But the blood thins out over the centuries, and it is becoming harder for the head of the dragon clan to find a mate who is a full-fledged dragon descendant that can ‘turn’ at will.
The ingénue, Clarissa Rue Hawthorne, is a slip of a child who grows up knowing that, as a half breed, she will be reviled or dismissed by her contemporaries. Though she forms a crush on the Marquess of Langford, Christoff, the charismatic head of the clan, she decides to fake her own death and move to London, where she begins a successful career as a jewel thief.
Unfortunately, ten years later a powerful magic diamond is stolen from the clan, and Christoff is sent to London to recover it. While there, he encounters “Rue” and realizes that she is a rare female able to “turn” completely, and therefore his mate. Colorful and fully-realized characters abound, such as the local madam, the street urchin Rue has saved, and other odd 18th century English characters that make the mileau seem all the more realistic. Abe’s prose flows like liquid fire, and her plot is swift and sure. Her characters are flawed, memorable and fascinating, and the historical/magical aspect interwoven so deftly into the novel as to be nearly invisible. Though we know that Christoff and Rue will eventually get together, the amore isn’t done in a clichéd way at all. It flows naturally from the characters instincts, and it reads beautifully. Ms Abe’s rich imagery and tart prose keep the reader hungry for more, long after the book is finished.
If you’re going to read only one dragon book this year, I’d recommend that you choose “The Smoke Thief” and fly far away from “Rhiana.”

Saturday, January 13, 2007

The Silver Rose and The Messenger of Truth

The Silver Rose, by Susan Carroll is an historical/paranormal romance set in 17th century France under the rule of Catherine De Medici, the "Dark Queen" who is cast here as a witch.
I was unaware that this was the third in a series of books about Medici and the "wise women/witches" of the era until I was a third of the way into the work, and by then I felt it necessary to just press on and finish it instead of trying to stop and start another volume (I have the preceeding work, The Courtesan, in my TBR pile).
This series concerns the fate of three "wise women" sisters with various "fey" powers, such as mind-reading or healing, who live on Faire Isle among a community of women. They are hunted by some truly evil male witch hunters, and dispersed to other countries to hide. The youngest sister, Miribele, returns to Faire Isle to live in the woods as a wise woman, and isn't hunted because she alone among her sisters wasn't charged with witchcraft. Her childhood sweetheart, Simon, was one of the main witchunters and sees fit to spare her the torture/confession/burning at the stake routine. Inevitably, Simon, who has become quite a sinister figure, finds himself filled with regret at having killed so many women, and finds that his life is empty, his soul bereft, and yet he presses on, hoping to find the dreaded "Silver Rose" reputed to be a strong and evil witch who gives out poisoned roses as her calling card. After an attempt on De Medici's life, Simon is called to hunt down the Silver Rose and wrest from her the equally dreaded "Book of Shadows" which is full of deadly spells, but also contains the secret of eternal life.
Meanwhile, Miri is charged with helping Simon, and finds him a changed man, full of sorrow and regret, and in need of a second chance. Of course, Miri's love is all that is needed to turn Simon from a bitter and cruel person to a respectful, loving man who will not murder any more wise women. Pardon me while I roll my eyes and sigh at that old and ridiculous theme. Any man who has basically burned women alive for a living isn't just going to become a pushover after a couple of weeks with a pretty woman mouthing platitudes about peace and love at him. There's also an underlying anti-abortion theme here that is linked to the horrible act of putting infants out in the woods to die of exposure that I found objectionable at best. There are too many women who know they can't be a decent parent out there, and there are too many women and girls who are victims of incest and rape to not have legal abortion in place. Women need to have the right to deal with the product of their bodies as they see fit if they are to be equal citizens of this country.
At any rate, though it was an interesting insight into 17th century France and the herbalists and midwives of the time, I found Miri to be a bit too "goody-two-shoes" and her beloved Simon to be unrealistic in his 360 turn around for the love of a woman he would have killed earlier in his career. There were several other characters that are stereotypes (the good-hearted simpleton, the evil follower who is, of course, a stupid larger woman, because fat somehow equates to lack of brain cells, the foppish man who is effeminate but a heterosexual, the gentle abbess who has a lovely garden and is everyone's proxy mom, etc.) and even the sex scenes are predictable. I was somewhat disappointed in this novel, which I'd been lead to believe was similar to the works of Susan Vreeland and Tracy Chevalier. Unfortunately, it is not even close to the quality of work those two authors create.
The 4th Maisie Dobbs mystery novel, The Messenger of Truth, was also a disappointment, though not as much of one as the Silver Rose. Maisie is investigating the untimely accidental death of an artist who belonged to a wealthy artistocratic family in England of the 1930s. In previous novels, Maisie, who had been a nurse during the Great War, was a softer, more sympathetic character. In this tome, Maisie has become colder, more distant, calculating and selfish. Her assistant Billy, the lovable Cockney, is dealt a cruel blow in this book when his youngest child dies of diptheria. There is some discussion of the role of art in society, and the vast gulf that had formed between the "haves" and the "have nots" at that point during the depression that is well worth the price of the book for its insight. But I found myself discomfited by the new chill that has come over Maisie Dobbs and the much more stringent prose style employed by Jacqueline Winspear, the author. Perhaps Ms Winspear felt it was necessary to convey the horrors of the era. At any rate, it was still a fairly satisfying read, as Maisie solves the mystery and sets up a new chapter in her life sans male attachements. I can only hope that Winspears next Maisie Dobbs novel is set after the depression, and is therefore somewhat softer in tone and style.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

RIP Tillie Olsen, a woman who inspired generations

Below is the AP copy of the obituary of famed feminist writer Tillie Olsen, who died recently.
Olsens "Silences" was required reading in my freshman lit class at Clarke College (which was an all womens college at the time) and I remember weeping after reading it, and rushing to the library to find a copy of "Tell Me a Riddle" which was also an emotional, powerful book for me. She was a brilliant writer, and her grandaugher, Ms Ericka Lutz, is on the SF Writergrrls listserve that I subscibe to. Trina R, a cartoonist also on the SF list actually met Olsen and has books signed by her, something I find awesome and that fills me with envy for never having the opportunity to meet Olsen. She must have been an amazing woman, as her birthday is the same as my grandmothers, Alta Gayle Semler, and my dear friend Monica is also a January 14 baby.
Go with God, Tillie Olsen. Give em heck in writers heaven!

Eric Risberg/Associated Press, 2001
Tillie Olsen
Readers’ Opinions
Forum: Book News and Reviews
Ms. Olsen died after being in declining health for
years, her daughter Laurie Olsen said.

A daughter of immigrants and a working mother starved
for time to write, Ms. Olsen drew from her personal
experiences to create a small but influential body of
work. Her first published book, “Tell Me a Riddle”
(1961), contained a short story, “I Stand Here
Ironing,” in which the narrator painfully recounts her
difficult relationship with her daughter and the
frustrations of motherhood and poverty.

At the time of the book’s publication Ms. Olsen was
heralded by critics as a short story writer of immense
talent. The title story was made into a film in 1980
starring Melvyn Douglas and Lila Kedrova.

Ms. Olsen returned to issues of feminism and social
struggle throughout her work, publishing a nonfiction
book, “Silences,” in 1978, an examination of the
impediments that writers face because of sex, race or
social class. Reviewing the book in The New York Times
Book Review, Margaret Atwood attributed Ms. Olsen’s
relatively small output to her full life as a wife and
mother, a “grueling obstacle course” experienced by
many writers.

“It begins with an account, first drafted in 1962, of
her own long, circumstantially enforced silence,” Ms.
Atwood wrote. “She did not write for a very simple
reason: A day has 24 hours. For 20 years she had no
time, no energy and none of the money that would have
bought both.”

Tillie Lerner was born on Jan. 14, 1912, on a tenant
farm in Nebraska. She was the second of six children
born to Samuel and Ida Lerner, Jewish immigrants from
Russia, socialists whose political and social beliefs
heavily influenced Ms. Olsen. Her father, a
paperhanger and painter by trade, was the state
secretary of the Nebraska Socialist Party.

After completing 11th grade, Ms. Olsen dropped out of
high school. She immediately took on working-class
jobs, including stints as a waitress, a hotel maid, a
packinghouse worker, a secretary and a factory worker.

It was during the Depression that Ms. Olsen began work
as an activist for social and labor causes, joining
the Young Communist League and organizing packinghouse
workers in Kansas and Nebraska. She contracted
pleurisy and tuberculosis working in a factory, and
while recovering, began to write her first book,
“Yonnondio: From the Thirties.”

In 1933 she moved to San Francisco, where she would
live for more than 70 years, and resumed her pro-labor
activities. During the 1934 San Francisco general
strike, she was arrested, and promptly chronicled the
strike in The New Republic and The Partisan Review.

During the strike she met a fellow protester named
Jack Olsen, whom she later married. They reared four
daughters, Karla, Julie, Kathie and Laurie. Mr. Olsen
died in 1989.

In addition to her four daughters, Ms. Olsen is
survived by a sister, Vicky Bergman, of Pembroke
Pines, Fla.; eight grandchildren; and three

Ms. Olsen received numerous awards, including a Ford
Foundation grant in 1959, the first year it was
awarded; a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1975; and a
citation for Distinguished Contribution to American
Literature from the American Academy and National
Institute of Arts and Letters in 1976.

Beginning in the early 1970s, she was an adviser to
the Feminist Press. At her suggestion the press began
reprinting feminist classics that had been lost,
starting with “Life in the Iron Mills” by Rebecca
Harding Davis. Over the years, Ms. Olsen recommended
many of the books the Feminist Press reprinted.

She also occasionally worked as a teacher in the 1960s
and ’70s, at Stanford University, the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology and the University of