Opinion

Nightside series by Simon R. Green

It’s too damned cold to be the beginning of June!  I swear, if I have to endure another cold summer, I’m going to have to sic the flying ninja monkeys on somebody at The Weather Channel.  Seriously, it’s been a cold, wet, miserable few days here in the darkest jungles of Appalachia, so I’ve been staying in my Happy Place.  Me, some ginger ale, my Kindle and my netbook have been very happy and warm inside my pillow fort, and I am not coming out until the temps top eighty degrees again (that’s twenty-seven-ish for you Celsius types). I want my sauna-like Appalachian summer, darn it all, and I’m going to throw a tantrum until I get it!

Okay, that’s not strictly true.  The other night, Big Sister, who is a terrific cook, sent over a bowl of something that involved chicken, peppers and onions, a ricotta sauce and gnocchi (she likes challenging my palate, and I think she’s trying to fatten me up after the Long Illness, which I’m not opposed to).  I had never tried gnocchi before, but it was very very nice.  Nice enough that I am going to try making it myself.  I’ve never made pasta before — it looks intimidating, and I don’t think I have the right tools — but gnocchi doesn’t seem to require anything more than a bowl and a knife, which I can totally provide.  If it goes well, it may land on the dinner rotation here in our treetop fortress.

So on to business.  I’ve mentioned before that I have fairly loose parameters for what defines a genre.  I think a measurable amount of urban fantasy could arguably fall into the Pulp vein because so much of it plays on the Hardboiled Detective tropes, which are solidly pulpy.  I also think that it can still be steampunk even if there’s not a dirigible to be seen.  Genres are as much about attitude and tone as they are about the props, and, as I pointed out in my last book review, having the right props doesn’t automatically mean the story wins any cred from me.

But I understand that others can feel very differently. So it is with no small amount of trepidation that I present you with the Nightside series by Simon R. Green.  Why do I think it belongs here on a blog focused on Steampunk, Dieselpunk and New Pulp?  Because, while our hero constantly claims he is no great shakes at investigation, the stories fall very strongly into the Hardboiled Detective category, in tone, approach and style, and that says Pulp to me, as I said above.  The hardboiled detective started out as a classic pulp genre (hell, it helped define pulp as a classification of fiction), long before it went mainstream.

So, Simon R. Green is a prolific and respected British author, who has done other books besides Nightside.  Memorably, he did the Secret Histories (starting with “The Man with the Golden Torc), as well as Hawk and Fisher, Ghostfinders and the Deathstalker series.  As you can tell, his focus is on science fiction and fantasy, my favorite words in the whole English language.  But Nightside is his most well known work and arguably his best written (personally, I couldn’t get past the Marty Stu-ness of the Secret Histories, and his Ghostfinders just didn’t work for me for a lot of reasons, though your mileage may vary.  I may change my opinion in the future — I am a big one for re-reading — but for now, I’ll pass).

  1. Something from the Nightside
  2. Agents of Light and Darkness
  3. Nightingale’s Lament
  4. Hex and the City
  5. Paths Not Taken
  6. Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth
  7. Hell to Pay
  8. The Unnatural Inquirer
  9. Just Another Judgement Day
  10. The Good, the Bad, and the Uncanny
  11. A Hard Day’s Night
  12. The Bride Wore Black Leather
  13. Tales from the Nightside (short fiction anthology)

The Nightside is a series of twelve novels (plus one collection of short stories) that depict the adventures of one John Taylor, a private investigator, native of the Nightside, and the Chosen One of at least one prophecy.  Being the Chosen One is never a good thing, but in the Nightside, it’s especially bad.  Which is why, when John Taylor finally left the Nightside, he stayed gone up to now.  But at the beginning of the first book, the search for a missing/runaway teen brought him back to his old haunts.  From there, things just snowballed and he took his old place back in the darkness.

So what is the Nightside?  It’s a fictional inner neighborhood of London, older than the city itself.  It’s always night time here, 3:00 am to be exact, “the midnight of the soul,” some call it.  John Taylor describes it as “a place where dreams come true and nightmares come alive. Where one can buy anything, often at the price of your soul… or someone else’s. Where the music never stops and the fun never ends.”  Every possible vice you can think of (and several you wish you hadn’t thought of) is practiced here.  Moreover, what is impossible in the outside world is common as dirt in Nightside:  angels, magic, monsters, time travel, carnivorous cars, homunculi, you name it, it’s here and probably causing trouble.

  • Angels in the Nightside are not benevolent guardians in the Nightside.  They are messengers of God, and scary as hell.
  • Gods are real, all of them, and they hang out in the Street of Gods.  Stay out.  No, really; I don’t care how good a person you’ve been, seriously, stay out.
  • Time slips are invisible, undetectable holes in time.  Sometimes people fall out of them and are stuck in the Nightside present forever.  Sometimes people from this side fall in, and are never seen again.  Watch where you walk.
  • Cars are dangerous.  They go way too fast, brake pedals are for pussies, and cars like the flavor of human flesh.  Cross the street at your own peril.
  • Ghosts can actually be pretty cool.  Knowing you have nothing more to lose is probably very relaxing.
  • Houses can and will eat you.  It’s not pretty.

John Taylor plies his trade, detective and/or thug for hire, here in the Nightside, and keeps the business running more or less.  He is hired to find missing girls, figure out why an up-and-coming singer’s beautiful voice is driving people to commit suicide, figure out why the power grid for the Nightside (they’re only nominally connected to the London grid) is failing, things like that.  But, as is inevitable for hardboiled detective, nothing is ever straightforward.  Yes, he has a small but useful magical talent:  when he concentrates, he can feel where something is, no matter how far away or how well hidden.  An inborn magical GPS for missing stuff is very handy for a PI for hire.  On the other hand,  even with magical GPS, it’s hard to play the PI game when your mother is a demigod and is weaving the destruction of the world when she’s not stalking you.  Or when an army of nearly-unkillable homunculi are looking to destroy you.  Or just when all the scary things from your nightmares think your name is a curse word and your body is great target practice.

To say John Taylor has “friends” is to stretch the blanket a little too much.  But he has colleagues and contacts who  at least respect him.  There’s Walker, who represents The Authorities.  Walker is more or less the police force of the Nightside.  No, he doesn’t care if you kill people, steal, rape, pillage, meh, who cares, so long as Nightside itself is protected.  Walker is an old friend of John’s dad.  Walker and John do NOT like one another, but neither is above using the other when the situation merits.

Alex Morrisey owns the bar John usually hangs out in.  Alex is a direct male descendant of Merlin.  The Merlin, the one and only.  Sounds cool.  But a spell cast by Merlin means that Alex can never leave the bar, ever ever.  Not for a date, not for a quick piss in the alley round back.  This makes Alex more than a little sour; he wears all black all the time because “there’s nothing darker.”  He is the closest thing John has to a friend, and Alex has bailed John out a couple times.  Then there’s Suzie Shooter, bloodthirsty bounty hunter (“dead or alive” means “dead, because there’s less paperwork”) who often partners with John on jobs when he needs muscle; she’s also his love interest, for a certain value of the term “love interest.”  Their relationship is complicated.  Then there are characters like Dead Boy, the Walking Man, Razor Eddie, and The Collector.

The prose style is classic first person, delightfully Chandleresque.  It’s a pity Humphrey Bogart is dead; he’s the only one who could do justice to an audiobook for Nightside.  Green’s style is spartan and clean, but nevertheless it describes the night and neon character of Nightside well enough that even a non-visual reader like myself can picture the place.  The stories are pretty straightforward.  As I’ve said before, I’m not a huge follower of the hardboiled genre (for some reason, I just can’t follow the logic sometimes), but I can follow these and enjoy them.

Downside?  This is pretty dark stuff.  The trigger warnings in these stories would require a whole new blog post just to list them; do not read if you have a weak constitution or are easily offended/disturbed.  For myself, I can’t really binge-read the Nightside series like I usually do Jim Butcher’s work, for example, just sit down and read and read and read until I’ve consumed the whole series.  I tried it with Nightside twice.  I enjoyed the reading, don’t get me wrong.  But around about Book Seven, I started feeling depressed and fatalistic.  I do better reading these stories in small doses.  Again, your mileage may vary.

All in all, I recommend this series if you’re down with the hardboiled detective pulp genre, but are in the mood for a dark fantasy/SF twist, aren’t easily offended, or just can’t resist the “hidden world” scenario in fiction (my personal favorite flavor).

Aaaaaaand that’s it for me today.  You know the drill:  share, tweet, comment, write.  Next up is Fun Friday, and for that I could really use some recommendations.  Contact me at ajclarkson-at-talwyn-dot-net.  I’m sure there’s something I’m forgetting….. Meh, it’ll come to me.  In the meantime, I’m out of here; now I’m in the mood to read Nightside again!  Y’all be good, and if you can’t be good, don’t get caught!

Categories: books, Opinion, Pulp, Review | Leave a comment

Nefertiti’s Heart by A.W. Exley

Wow!  It’s been a whole, what, 24 hours since we last spoke!  Nevertheless, I’m back and rarin’ to go.  I have spent a quiet week so far in the darkest jungles of Appalachia.  My hubby even fired up the grill yesterday and scorched some dead animal flesh.  Delicious stuff, and he got it all done and dusted before the rains hit.    Best of all, we pulled onions in the garden.  You know what that means?  Onion pancakes for lunch!  Yay!

In the meantime, a quick housekeeping note before we move on to today’s rant. Being techno-challenged, it took me a while to notice that my email addy is acting funny, and I’m not receiving emails like I should.  So if you’ve written me and I haven’t answered, it’s not that I was ignoring you; it’s that my email hates me.  I messaged Elder Son to see if he can help me get set up elsewhere.  Until then, message me in the comments and I’ll keep them private.  As soon as I get set up on a new email (waiting for help from Eldest Son), I’ll post it here and on Twitter, so keep an eye out.

Okay, enough housekeeping.  On to the subject at hand.  On the ride back home from Vandalia, I read Nefertiti’s Heart by A.W. Exley.  The back cover describes it as “a steampunk adventure with a serial killer, romance, and a few broken hearts.”  God, I hate giving bad reviews so so much.  But I have to say that this book fails on every point.  It’s steampunk only in the most marginal sense, the romance leaves me cold, and “broken hearts” is a very low play on words.

Okay, the basic plot.  It’s 1861, and we have Cara Devon, a “curious and impetuous” estranged daughter of a famous collector of antiquities.  She ran away from home at a young age (14 years old is implied, but I wasn’t clear on that) because of a terrible event (her father basically sold her to a rapist, then beat her half to death when she fled the marriage).  Now he’s dead, and she’s come back to sell off his fabulous collection.  Meanwhile, a serial killer is stalking the daughters of aristocrats, and murdering them in a very odd manner:  he’s stabbing keys through their hearts.  Yeah, that’s what I thought, too.  Cara makes a connection between the killer’s modus operandi and an artifact in the collection:  Nefertiti’s heart, a fist sized diamond (how is beyond me; the connection is tenuous at best).  So she starts investigating.  During this “investigation,” she comes across Viscount Nathaniel “Nate” Lyons, minor noble, crime boss, pirate and leader of pirates, you name it.  Oh, by the way, he’s dead sexy, and he’s got the hots for Cara.  Between the bouts of heavy breathing and coy flirting, the two of them manage to figure out who the serial killer is before the Queen’s Enforcers can do it.

Oh, gosh, where to start with all the wrong of this?  Okay, start at the beginning.  I feel like I was sold a pig in a poke.  The title and blurb implied that the story was going to be an adventure, like Indiana Jones, trying to find this artifact before the bad guys do.  What I got was a very spicy romance with a little suspense story running parallel.  I don’t like romance.  Yeah, I know, I’m a girl, I’m supposed to love that junk.  But I just don’t.  I’ll take Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade over Pretty Woman any day of the week.  If I had known this story was this romance-heavy, I wouldn’t have bought it.  The book is called “artifact hunters,” but they never really do this, beyond talking about it and occasionally reading a text).

Next.  It’s called a Steampunk story.  I’m not sure what it was, but this was not steampunk.  Oh, it had the trappings.  It had dirigibles and steam powered vehicles and clockworks here and there.  But steampunk is about more than just the props.  It’s about a  juxtaposition of modern thought and action against the structure and attitudes of the Victorian world.  This juxtaposition never happened.  Crap.  This is hard to explain.  Okay, let me give you a for instance.  At one point Cara goes to a fancy ball in London.  She decides to flaunt societal expectations (that this is a rebellious act is quite clearly stated), and wear what a modern reader would recognize as a slinky evening gown.  Fine, whatever.  Except that she wears the dress to the party and nobody notices.  There’s not a word is said, no ladies whispering behind fans, none of the men (except the love interest) ogle her, whatever.  it’s as though she were just like everybody else.

It’s a small thing, I know.  But the whole book is like this.  Everything is just a little bit off, none of the attitudes are there.  It’s like it’s the normal everyday world, only with Steampunk props added.  The props don’t even figure into the story, not in the least.  The male lead arrived once in a dirigible, but beyond that, nothing much. It made it difficult to fall into the world, to feel that I was in a different place and time.  Am I making any sense at all?

Next:  Nathaniel Lyons.  Meh.  Maybe it’s because I don’t read enough of these romances to know the tropes.  But I am utterly bored by the romantic lead in this story.  We’re told he’s a dangerous dude, a pirate, feared and respected by society, blah blah blah.  We never see any of it.  And as for being feared and respected, which one is it?  Nobody seems to take any notice of him.  It’s like I said before, the reactions of the populace was modern, not Victorian, not even faux Victorian.  Same here.  He wasn’t sexy, he was pushy.  Not a turn on.

That brings us to Cara.   Oh, Lord, where do I start?  Okay, first:  rape as character background has been done to death.  I’m not saying you can’t ever use it, because, when well written, it’s very effective.  However, you have to write it well;  dazzle me.  Cara didn’t dazzle me.  She was written as angry and bitter and so averse to touch that she wouldn’t even shake hands.  But she was willing to spill every grim detail on her second meeting with the male lead, a character she said several times that she didn’t like and she didn’t trust.  Hello?  Did I miss something here?  Moreover, it’s like the third meeting when she suddenly lets him into her knickers (which they didn’t have silky panties back then, they had things like bloomers or drawers, which reached almost to the knees; do you research!).  This chick won’t let another woman shake her hand, but she’ll let this self-admitted scoundrel cut her underthings off with a knife.  After that, the two of them are going at it like bunnies; a girl with serious intimacy issues, probably PTSD, and she’s a suddenly a maniac in bed?

And because it needs to be said:  Sex in a tree?  Really?  REALLY?

Finally (i have to get to a “finally” or it’s gonna be midnight before I finish this post).  The plot.  Yes, I’m a little annoyed they promised me an adventure, and I get a soap opera.  But I’m a big girl, I can suck it up and deal. All right, they said Cara has curiosity and impetuosity.  They say it, but I never see it.  Mostly she’s angry and … well, angry.  Next, Cara’s supposed to have come back to sell her father’s collection of antiquities.  Except there’s no collection.  There’s a lot of talk about a collection, but you never see it, Cara never sees it, nobody sees it, because, if it exists at all, he’s scattered the pieces to the four winds.  “Scattered to the four winds” is kind of the opposite of a “collection,” no?

I saw the solution to who the serial killer was about half an hour before the story did, and immediately saw exactly how the last third of the book was gonna play out.  You’ve seen one Lifetime channel movie, you’ve seen them all.  The connection between the serial killer and Nefertiti’s Heart sorta worked; at least I was willing to let it slide.  I’ll give the writer credit for being a little creative with our killer’s methods, at least.  Suitably gruesome and weird and horribly appropriate.  Last:  in the very last scene, there was an implication that the Heart had some sort of mystical power.  No, not an implication, an outright statement.  Okay, if you’d started out by saying mystical things were possible, regardless of how rare, I’d be willing to roll with it.  To say it’s possible, and then they laugh it off publicly while entertaining the though privately, I’d roll with that.  But to never once utter a single sound about it through the entire book and then suddenly come out with “Oh, you and I both bled on it and now we’re bound together by its mystical power” in the last pages?  Cheat cheat cheat!  That’s not how these things are done.  I wish there was a word as good as “deus ex machina” for these sorts of situations.

And then again, I could be completely wrong.  I was so disappointed that I bought an adventure novel and got a smutty romance, that may have biased my opinion.  But I just was not happy.

Okay, I’m sure there was more I wanted to say, but I’ve been picking at this blog post all day, it’s after ten thirty and I’m no longer coherent.  So I’ll leave off here.  You know the drill.  I’ll get back to you on the email thing ASAP.  In the meantime, I’ll be back on Friday, and I expect y’all to be good while I’m gone.  And if you can’t be good, don’t get caught!

 

Categories: books, Opinion, Review, Steampunk, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

F*ck the Bechdel Test!

Anybody who has known me for more than ten minutes know I’m not a feminist.  I’m not an anti-feminist, either.  Mostly I’m a “can’t-be-bothered-ist.”  Yeah, I like being able to vote, get a paycheck, inherit, etc., all those lovely things that being a 21st century female make possible.  But I have too many other things to do to spend my time and energy being political.

But, for all that Appalachian insularity, it is possible to get my dander up.  And this article I read the other day did just that (original article is here).  In a nutshell, the article says that back in November, Swedish cinemas were introducing a rating system that indicates whether or not a movie passes the Bechdel test. (I can’t find anything saying how successful this rating system has been so far; I’ll report back when I hear something)

I seriously doubt it’s possible to be online nowadays without knowing what the Bechdel test is.  But for those who failed to get the memo, the Bechdel test is allegedly a barometer for how well women are represented in a particular film.  It originated back in 1985, in a webcomic called “Dykes to Watch Out For” by Alison Bechdel. The test, in short asks whether one simple thing happens in a movie:  do two named female characters (no nameless redshirts allowed) talk to each other about anything other than a man.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I think having more female characters in fiction is a good thing, and having them being rounded, fully fleshed characters is even better.  I don’t think I can stand one more Dejah Thoris in the world (no offense, Burroughs fans, but she really is just a Tootsie Roll with boobs; a treat to be fought over, not a person).  But I honestly think the Bechdel test is worse than useless; it actually makes things harder to find good female characters.

I’ve been writing for a long time.  I’ve been a woman for a longer time.  And I’m here to tell you, there’s more to writing a good female character than what the Bechdel Test measures.  “Sex and the City” passes the Bechdel test, times a thousand.   But that TV show and the movies that followed are pure fluff.  Two chicks talking about Jimmy Choo shoes may pass the Bechdel test, but that doesn’t make the characters anything more than vapid life-support apparatus for a set of boobs.

On the other hand, the original Star Wars movie fails the Bechdel test; there are only three women in that movie (Aunt Beru, Princess Leia and Mon Mothma, one of the Rebel Alliance leaders).  None of these women interact in any way, which is an automatic test fail.  But you cannot sit there and tell me that Princess Leia even vaguely resembles Dejah Thoris (yeah, I’m gonna keep harping on her, she annoys me).  Leia is nobody’s victim; she kicks ass, she has depth of character, she has flaws, she has feelings.  She’s a living, breathing, fully fleshed person, and, more importantly, she contributes significantly to the narrative; she’s not window dressing in any way, and without her input, the heroes would not win.  If she fails the Bechdel, that’s proof in my mind that the test itself is flawed.

Some examples that annoy the crap out of me:

  • FAILAliens.  Sigourney Weaver’s character Ripley talks to the child about monsters, but beyond that, the flick is a boy’s part.  Ripley isn’t a rounded character?  Give me a break!
  • FAILHarry Potter Series.  Hermione is the only girl who’s more than a recurring part, and she mostly interacts with the guys, not other girls.  Hermione kicks ass before puberty!  She has the most intelligence of the leads, and has more depth than either of the boys, IMHO. 
  • FAILLord of the Rings Trilogy:  There are only three named characters in the series, and none of them interact with one another. Okay, they might have a point with this one, at least as far as Arwen is concerned.  But Galadriel is a strong leader with depth, and Eowyn (my personal favorite of the three) is more than a match for the guys in any category you care to name.
  • FAILThe Avengers:  Only a couple of female named characters, and they don’t interact.  Really?  Do I really have to defend Pepper Potts or Black Widow?  Okay, Black Widow isn’t terrifically developed, but still!

Now wait, Allene!” I can hear my detractors scream.  “You’re not being fair!  That’s not how the test is supposed to be used!”  Don’t flame me, I already know that.  The Swedish cinema decision, and the general position of proponents of the test say they want to broaden awareness of the role of women in fiction.  The Bechdel Test is supposed to do that very thing, by calling attention to the women in a film and pointing out when she’s just window dressing.  From there you can open a dialogue.

The problem is that NOBODY IS USING IT LIKE THAT!  What you intended to happen, and what actually happens are always not the same thing.  People are using it to dismiss a movie as un-feminist or anti-women or whatever.  They don’t discuss the merits of the movie itself, or the characterization of the women in the movie; they just say, “It fails Bechdel, it’s crap!”

So if Bechdel fails to examine what really makes a female character good, and people are using the test in an unproductive way, what can be done?  Well, how about the Mako Mori Test?  Here‘s a good article on it.  For those of you who don’t want to go look, The Mako Mori Test is named after the character Mako Mori in the movie Pacific Rim.  It is intended as a more sensible alternative to the Bechdel Test.  The requirements to pass the Mako Mori:

  1. Does the work have at least one named female character…
  2. Who gets her own narrative arc….
  3. That isn’t just a supporting strut of the man’s narrative?

This makes sense! When a writer sits down to pen a story, he doesn’t ask himself, “Wow, should I have my female lead talk to her roommate about shoes?”  No.  He asks, “What is this character about, and what is her story?  How does it feed into the main narrative?”  Bechdel doesn’t ask this; it doesn’t care.

Does Aliens pass the Mako Mori?  Hell, yes!  Ripley is a named female, who not only has her own narrative arc, but is the primary arc, and in no way is it merely a secondary support to a larger male narrative.  What about Star Wars?  Leia is female?  yep.  She has her own story?  Yep.  Is it only supporting the man’s story?  Well, sorta kinda; I think it stands on its own, if you hold your mouth right.

(Would Dejah Thoris pass Mako Mori?  Ummm, NO! Yet another reason to despise that character)

Mako Mori isn’t a perfect test either.  (Sex and the City would pass the Mako Mori, but that doesn’t make it any less fluffy and vapid).  But I think it’s a much better barometer of the roles of women in fiction.  It opens a dialogue about women in movies, and it actually points at what needs to be discussed — character and story! — rather than some arbitrary “did two girls talk to each other” measure that tells us nothing substantial about the involved characters.

Final question:  why am I bringing this up on a blog devoted to Steampunk, Dieselpunk and New Pulp?  Well, honestly, because our beloved genres do not have a great track record on its depiction of women in film, books, games.  Again, I must trot out Dejah Thoris, who is my prime example.  Granted, all three of our genres either come out of a more patriarchal past, or purposely re-immerse us in that past.  But that doesn’t absolve us of the responsibility to our readers.  But we’ll examine this in more depth next week.

Okay, I think I can safely put away the soap box for the week.  I’m pretty sure I’m going to get some comments on this topic and I definitely want to hear from you, even if we disagree.  I only ask that you keep it clean and polite, or else I’ll loose the Swedish Chef on you!  Please do share, tweet, comment. Come find me on Facebook, Twitter or email (you can find those links on my About page).  And if you have any contributions you’d like to share with our Fun Fridays, email me!  I can’t have all the fun, you gotta join in!

Categories: Opinion | 7 Comments

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