Indexing by Seanan McGuire

indexing-seanan-mcguire

Indexing Series Book 1, 47North (Originally by Kindle Serial), 2013, 404 pgs.

You may know her better as Snow White, but her name’s Henry actually. And she really must insist on Henry, too; she hasn’t spent years avoiding apples and fighting the urge to be a shrinking violet just to let her Aarne-Thompson designation define her, even if she can’t shake the unfortunate coloration. She’s only one of many, anyway. There are thousands of possible Snow Whites out there, ready to wake up one day and start talking to the birds and collecting groups of short men. There are thousands of every possible fairytale character. Because underlying our reality, the one where people get to make choices about who they’re going to be and what they’re going to do, is The Narrative. You probably know it, or have at least heard its stories. They pop up in almost every culture across the globe. And fighting it is what Henry and her team do for a living. She and the others at the ATI Management Bureau are who they call in to save lives when a Sleeping Beauty activates and sends everyone in an office building downtown into a coma or to when a newly awakened Cinderella decides to ditch her loving fiance for a prince she barely knows. So, Henry please, and some respect. Even if you’re a completely normal human, you might need her some day.

Have we ever talked about how much I love stories about stories?

As much as I do appreciate individuality in a piece, and as much as I’ll complain about certain tropes, nothing will get me into a work quicker than the idea that the writer knows and loves storytelling as an art form. It might show up in something as simple as having the lead be a reader who makes references to other pieces, or it might come from something as complex as the sort of interwoven myths and history you get from a high fantasy piece. It might even just be in the self-aware use of a predictable element.

But books and stories have had a huge impact on my life, and I like when an author clearly has that background too. That’s part of the reason I like mixed genres, and part of the reason I like retellings when they’re done skillfully and cleverly.

What I’m saying here is that I’d been meaning to read some Seanan McGuire for a while now, and I’m glad this book was my first, because it has both of those things. This is a book entirely about stories, and the way we create them, and the way they take over, and the way we try to control them.

I have to say, though, this would have been a fun book even if it wasn’t as metatextual as it is. I may read more fantasy than anything anymore, but I grew up on Agatha Christie and old Law and Order reruns, and this captures the spirit of those episodic procedurals pretty well.

Though I guess that fits in with the “story about stories” theme, too. We have all of the standard stock characters here, from Henry, who’s a hard-nosed detective even while she’s Snow White, to Sloane, the eccentric goth girl/evil stepsister, to Jeff, one of the shoemaker’s elves, whose need for detail work makes him the go-to computer expert, rounded out by Demi the guileless rookie who gets dragged into the crazy because the team needed a Pied Piper type to end a story takeover without deaths. Oh, and Andy, who’s sort of the brawn, but is mostly the straight man, as he’s perfectly normal and only has a secondary connection to the fairytale side of things.

If it weren’t for their fairytale alter egos they could almost be an episode of NCIS.

And the plot follows along those lines, as it’s mostly a series of cases that the team takes on as they attempt to prevent “memetic incursions,” or fairy tales taking over and messing up people’s’ normal lives, from running wild in their city.

The episodic nature allows for a lot of flexibility, which gives McGuire the ability to look at a lot of different types of cases as the book goes on. It’s not exactly the most fast-paced plot structure or the one with the best build, but it does allow the novel to be light and fun, in the way a send-up procedural should.

Even if what problems the book does have also seem to stem from this structure. The long drag of a slow case between two incredibly tense ones, or the piece’s tendency to be very repetitive are both probably lingering elements from its original, serial publication. I can’t be too hard on either, considering they were probably necessary for the way it was originally released, but they are off-putting when reading the story in one sitting.

Basically, though, if you have any fondness for cheesy cop shows, there’s a good chance you’ll like this.

But the real fun for me comes from the way the fairy tales are reinterpreted and used. I’m the sort of folklore geek who knew the Aarne-Thompson-Uther index existed before this novel, so all of the little meta touches and nods to lesser known fairy tales of course made me incredibly happy. If you’re also the sort of person who’d get a kick out of our characters trying to classify a Sleeping Beauty story down by variation, this is definitely for you.

I think, though, if you have any idea of the way a story can shift and warp in each retelling, you’ll get the general idea. In the book’s world, there are thousands of potential Cinderellas and Sleeping Beauties, all ready to awaken in the narrative and disrupt the normal world, with its ability to change, by forcing it to conform to the story.

Which is the other wonderful, metatextual thing about the book’s setup: its effect on the character.

There’s a quote in one of the Discworld books, Witches Abroad, I think, where one of the leads rails against the idea of “feeding people to stories,” of letting the role you think someone is supposed to play override any of their actual goals and desires, override any of the things they choose to do. It’s an idea that’s always stuck with me, and one that I think has relation to a lot of real world issues.

It’s part of the reason we talk so much about representation. How are you supposed to know you can become an astrophysicist when everything is telling you the role you’re “supposed” to play is nanny? How are you supposed to accomplish something when every force, social, economic, and media is telling you that people like you don’t do that? We do, sometimes, have a tendency to “feed people to stories.”

This is a novel almost entirely about that idea, down to its very bones. Most of the cases break down in roughly the same way: a “memetic incursion” will pop up, drag everyone in its immediate vicinity into whatever story it is and give them a proscribed role, and then our heroes, all of whom have been badly affected by the overall narrative, will have to go in to fight it. And the heroes are the ones who fight it, because whether the narrative popping up is dangerous to lives or just to personal autonomy, letting it go just allows it to gain strength.

You can read a lot of different things into that. The first and most obvious, like I said, is as a representation of the societal forces that have a hand in dictating where our lives go, but there are definitely others. Sloane’s sudden urges to kill her teammates, which horrify the part of her that is her own person, can be read as a metaphor for intrusive thoughts, for one.

Or you could take it straight back to storytelling: the ways in which stories become entrenched, until they’re seen as just how narrative works, and how hard it can be to do something new when that happens. There’s a reading here that relates as much to fiction and authorship as much as one that relates to real life.

What I’m saying, though, is that this book does what all the best fantasy does, and that’s to use its fantastical elements as layered commentary, whether it’s to give us some road map for real world issues or to try to pick out the nature of narrative itself.

And while this is far from a perfect book, I’ll very happily take that.

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Wayfarer by Alexandra Bracken

wayfarer

Passenger Series Book 2, Hyperion, 2017, 532 pgs.

So now the timeline has shifted once again, separating Etta and Nicholas at the very crux of their journey. Stranding them from the only person each could trust, right after they’d failed at their goal of finding the Astrolabe and needed each others’ support the most. And without a plan, without knowing how their actions have changed the timeline, without even any idea of what year they’ve each been thrown to, the journey back to each other could be the most perilous yet. Because Etta finds herself badly injured and stuck with the Thorns, whom she can neither trust nor agree with. Even if their leader is her father. Even if he begins to call into question what little her mother, Rose, has told her about the time traveler’s world. Nicholas, for his part, finds himself forced to deal with both the arrogant and intractable Sophia Ironwood, a former enemy turned reluctant tag-along, and the mysterious mercenary that’s been stalking the both of them, claiming to have knowledge of what they’re looking for. Together, and separately, they’ll all stumble down into the dark secret of the Traveler‘s existence.

Spoilers for both books

I wonder if Alexandra Bracken’s work is always going to throw me for a loop regarding how to talk about it, because much like the first book in the series, I have badly mixed feelings regarding Wayfarer.

It’s a little frustrating, honestly, because I thought this was going to be the book that gave me what I wanted out of this series. And in a lot of ways it did. Given, the problems I had with the first book were still there, considering most of my issue was with the main character. Etta did still annoy me, even if I thought she was far better here, but for most of the novel there was enough awesomeness to make up for her.

Perhaps that’s partially because, in a lot of ways, this felt more like Nicholas’ book to me; Etta certainly has her own journey, but most of the memorable emotional beats revolve around what Nicholas and the people traveling with him are doing.

And that makes me far more tolerant of this novel. A focus more on Nicholas apparently means a loosening up of the hard-set, black and white view that permeated the first book. This isn’t exactly a case of moral relativism, but even in Passenger Nicholas was the more forgiving presence.

That was part of why I was excited for the sequel in the first place. When, at the end of the first book he met up with Sophia again, I knew I was going to enjoy what was coming. I knew it was going to involve a lot of development for her, as well as probably some of the other characters that had been written off in the first book. And adding a major part for a trained traveler was probably going to give me some of the deepening of this world that I’d been wanting.

And for those things Wayfarer delivered in spades. No only did we get the bickering road trip through time that I was expecting from Nicholas and Sophia, we got a growing, mutual respect that I completely wasn’t, but am entirely happy about. Sophia gets more sympathy and gets to be more heroic than I could have ever hoped for coming out of Passenger; I was absolutely certain, for example, that my pipe dream of badass, eyepatch-wearing Sophia was destined to remain just that, but I got it here, along with a nicely detailed character arc. She even got a love interest!

Like I said, I even liked Etta better than in the first book. Early on here, she meets up with the long missing Julian, and putting her in contrast with his breezy, carefree attitude cuts a lot of what bothered me about her in book one. Her sections now have a sense of humor to them, and just giving her someone to challenge her perspective makes it seem less gratingly like the be all and end all of righteousness. I honestly felt for Etta at some points in this novel, which was something that never happened in the first.

And for the parts that did still grate, well, those bothered me less with the addition of major parts for Sophia, Julian, Rose, and Etta’s father, Henry, as well as the introduction of Li Min. Making the cast an ensemble rather than just Nicholas and Etta far diminished the annoying bits in overall effect.

For the most part, the plot gave me what I wanted, too. We get all the family politics, and traveler backstory, and history and lore that I was looking for. There wasn’t as much along the lines of time-travel mechanics as I would have liked, but I’ll take where the travelers came from and how they developed into the society that they did as a very acceptable substitute.

Bracken’s even upped the ante with a new villain that’s older, crazier, and far more powerful than Ironwood, leading to some great tension and some great twists. Keeping the action quick and exciting was something that Bracken never had a problem with in the first, though, so seeing that continue here was no surprise.

Rose’s backstory also adds some wonderful mystery to the piece, calling into question a lot of what we’d thought was established about this world and story, and that mystery keeps the plot moving at the same blistering pace that the time limit and chase sequences in the first one did.

I was, in fact, happily reading along until the ending.

Those spoiler tags are up there for a reason, and that’s because it’s very hard to talk about my reaction to this novel without mentioning the ending. And by that I mean this would have been almost perfect if the ending hadn’t been far, far too easy.

Look, so much of the first novel was Etta coming to accept that, even with time travel powers, she couldn’t change the bad things that happened in the past. That was most of her journey, but now I’m supposed to accept it when I’m told that “Oh yeah, the original timeline was so much better! Millions more people survived and several wars never even happened!”?

That’s, cheap. That’s handing your character a perfect ending without any concern for earning it.

It’s even more galling that I’m supposed to believe this from a guy whose initial portrayal is as ruthless and cunning, and who is clearly telling Etta everything she wants to hear. Who we’re explicitly told at one point not to trust. And I’m supposed to just accept it when, at the end, he’s completely good and doing the right thing? Everything about the build here was telling me that Henry was manipulating her, but then at the end he’s just…not.

I’ll be fair here: this is mostly because it was very rushed. Loose ends are tied up too tidily so that the book doesn’t end up being nine hundred pages long. Ironwood gets taken out completely anticlimactically so that the novel has room to actually focus on taking out the new villain, whom we don’t get that much more from. Etta gets her happy family and her reunion with Nicholas with almost no struggle just because the book needs to end.

If the stuff with Henry had more room to grow and develop, this might have felt like less of a cop out. Specifically, we needed more time to see that he was doing good, without the specter of his potential evil over it. Or we needed more room in general, because there’s something so off about this ending.

It feels like this had the setup for at least another book, with Henry playing Etta in this one and coming in at the end as a third force working against our heroes. I don’t know if that is the case, and the rest of the series was nixed at some point, or if Bracken just wrote in some things that she never meant to pick back up. Either way, even getting most of what I wanted, I’m once again left wanting more.

Dreamland Social Club by Tara Altebrando

dreamland social club.jpg

Standalone, Dutton Books, 2011, 389 pgs.

Being the daughter of a roller coaster designer used to be an exciting, if often lonely, life. Jane’s lived all over the world and been to almost every major theme park you can think of. And even when she was isolated and friendless, she had her energetic, eccentric mother to brighten life. “Used to” being the operative phrase, though; her mother died a while back, and her father’s fallen on hard times since. That’s why she, her father, and her brother are moving into the rundown old house left to them by her maternal grandfather on Coney Island. It’s free and available, and maybe with a little luck her father can get some sort of work at one of the parks. Coney Island’s an odd place to move to, though. Not only does nobody blink an eye at the boy with tattoos covering every part of this body, not only are the bullies in the school deliberately strange, but it has history. The island’s, yes, with its fairs and parks, but Jane’s too. Her family’s. Her mother’s. And that history is in danger of being lost.

I have to say, this was not at all what I was expecting out of this book. Not that I can say I know Altebrando’s work all that well, having only read one previous novel. The Best Night of Your Pathetic Life was a piece of feel-good fluff, though: fast, fun, and engaging, but not particularly deep.

And sometimes that’s all a piece needs to make an impact. I bought this book because I’d liked the previous one I read, and I liked that book because reading it brought me back to every goofy high school movie I’d ever watched with my friends in the summer. I don’t think the novel was exactly trying to be anything else, either.

Dreamland Social Club, on the other hand, is a completely different animal. This is a book that wants to Say Something, and it has all the pros and cons that make up the territory.

Specifically, on the cons side, its sometimes gets a little bogged down trying to make its point; it’s never exactly preachy in that obnoxious, didactic way, but story rhythm is sacrificed at times in order to work into the novel’s themes. Also, the main character, Jane, is a little stiff, in a way that I’m noticing more and more often in books that want to be serious and intellectual.

It’s not that she’s awful, but she’s written to be almost unbelievably sheltered in order to differentiate her from the community she’s moving into. I can buy shy stick-in-the-mud, even if it’s not my favorite archetype, but I can’t quite accept that a girl who’s traveled all over the world and lived in major cities, both in the States and abroad, doesn’t know what “the projects” are. Again, the point being made sometimes overrides the story.

In spite of what they sound like, though, those are honestly very minor complaints. The pros very much outweigh the cons in this novel, and that is pretty much down to two things: uniqueness and nuance.

YA is a fairly political genre, but it has a tendency to keep the drama at a personal level. Most things will make nods at the huge, overarching issues society faces, like racism or sexism, but often they really only bother to skim the surface of those issues. It’s rare that I see anything that really gets down into the details, rare that a piece talks about something that isn’t an identity issue, and even rarer that the politics being talked about connect so heavily to storyline and character arc.

Dreamland Social Club isn’t only a novel about gentrification. But it is still a novel about gentrification, and most of the personal drama involved has some connection to that main theme. The characters’ hopes and dreams hang on the tension between preservation and development that’s at the center of the book, their relationships live and die by it, and even our lead’s journey to find out about her dead mother’s life has major roots in it.

Altebrando’s skillful in depicting that tension, as well. There’s no uncomplicated “corporations are evil” message, like you might expect; this is an honestly nuanced look at the issue, and nobody’s exactly a mustache twirling villain here. The people promoting development are on some level trying to make things better, though they’re ignoring the needs of the broader community and carelessly knocking down history to do so. In turn, the people looking to preserve Coney Island have their hearts in the right place, but are also sometimes desperately clinging to things that have been fading for a long time.

And most of the characters fall somewhere in between those two extremes. Babette, a character with dwarfism, is firmly on the side opposing development, but also takes offense at the idea that they should go back to the old days when her most viable career option would have been as part of a freak show. Jane herself is torn between the two; she wants to preserve Coney Island as it is in order to find out about her mother’s past, but she also wants to see the parks flourish again in order to secure her father’s job and future.

The amount of nuance Altebrando brings to this issue extends to the rest of the novel, too. The characters are all fully realized, in spite of some of them being tropes that usually set my teeth on edge. Jane’s hyper-shy innocence and the standard high school bullies in particular could have been grating, but weren’t because they all had history and development.

Every other theme the book tackles, too, has at least the potential for the same sort of depth. The plot is mostly Jane settling into her new community: making friends and finding romance, getting involved in the conflict between the born-and-bred Islanders and the company looking to build new attractions, and attempting to find out what she can about her mother’s side of the family.

But even the very setup leads to some interesting questions. Is it wrong to be interested in the strange and the grotesque? Can “strange” be something you choose to be? How much of who we are is choice, how much is experience, and how much comes from who and what your family is? If you never knew that family, how much impact could they have on you, and can you find out who they were from outside sources? Can something that’s been lost, person or place, ever be reconstructed?

I can’t say the book fully answers any of those questions, in fact, it only ever touches on some of them. But I can see tons of little moments in it leading to good discussion. I like things that give me food for thought, even if I have to read it into bits and pieces myself. And to be frank, the ability to read nuance into a situation is something that a lot of books actively cut off.

Largely, though, this is an entertaining, interesting read, with likable characters and the ability to tackle some tough questions without being flat or annoying about it. And that’s something you don’t get every day.