Sunday Sum-Up: June 20, 2021

It was a busier and more tiring week than I had anticipated, partly due to the weather (103°F. yay), and partly because we were short-staffed at work due to a co-worker’s vacation. So I had to do my own job in addition to his job, and I was pretty wiped out at the end of the day.

On the (very) bright side, I’m on my second day off out of five, and it’s been great so far. I went to the biggest farmers’ market in the city yesterday. I don’t get to go to that one very often since I work on Saturday mornings, so it was fun to see it. Most of the booths were given over to art, jewelry, and crafts, though, so I bypassed most of them. Except the jewelry, which I’m always interested in. I found a booth run by a woman who does something called French wire knitting (or something like that) where she takes crystals, pearls, or beads, and knits them into these little wire confections. I couldn’t resist buying a pair of earrings because they have a Victorian steampunk vibe going on. They’re great. I’ll try to remember to grab a macro lens when I get back to work so I can photograph them properly.

After that, I stopped by a coffee shop, went to the library, then headed off to the craft store to buy some thread and some cheap cotton muslin to make a mock-up for a little sewing project I want to do this week. Then I did a bunch of reading. All in all, a pretty good first day off.

Obligatory Mina Photo:

This is the face of a cat who prefers to take naps on wooden things rather than fluffy things. Seriously. Mina would rather sleep on the wood floor, a bookshelf, the top of the dresser, the nightstand, or the drawing table than sleep on the bed, couch, carpet, or either of the cat beds. The weirdo.

Not that I’m complaining about her sleeping on the night stand, because she does that in the morning around the time the sun comes up, so when all that light wakes me up early and I’m trying to fall asleep again for that last hour, Mina is right there and perfectly happy to accept whatever pets and scritchies come her way.

I suppose if you’re going to have to put up with being awakened much earlier than necessary, having a cat by your side makes it a little easier to deal with.

What I Finished Reading Last Week:

Books Promiscuously Read is not, as I thought it would be, a memoir of reading. It’s more an examination of the reading life, how reading affects readers’ lives, how it’s not a passive activity that people shouldn’t have to defend themselves for doing (in favor of more active past times like, say sports or crafts), and how literature bestows more than an escape from the everyday. White argues that literacy promotes equality (her examples include discussions of enslaved people’s accounts of learning to read and how it pulled them out of the ignorance inflicted upon them by the slaveholders of the American South in the early 1800s). She also argues that books should be read promiscuously- that is, readers should read whatever they want to, rather than having their reading be directed by what they “should” read. Although, White’s literary examples are pulled from classics and modern literary fiction rather than any genre fiction (which people enjoy reading in spite of its not being recommended by “serious literary people”). Overall, this was a lovely little meditation on reading and the reading life.

Half Sick of Shadows. So. Yeah. I approached this book like it was a piece of fanfiction (which, technically it is, like all Arthuriana really is, post-Mabinogion), and so was hoping for a fun dash through Arthurian lore in a post-BBC’s Merlin pop cultural world. What I got was… Well, it wasn’t that. At all. First off: on the book’s NetGalley page, there’s a quote stating that “Laura Sebastian is the next Madeline Miller”. Which, no. No she’s not. Madeline Miller’s writing is elegant and poetical and tells a straightforward story in a beautiful way from the first page to the last. Sebastian’s writing is competent, with hints of lyricism here and there. But Sebastian is so wrapped up in her Elaine of Astalot (or Elaine Astalot, or Elaine Shalott, because she can’t make up her mind) being an oracle whose sense of time is not always linear that she’s created a muddled mess of her timeline. You know how you’ll be telling a story and you mention a restaurant, and you realize halfway through that you need context for the restaurant’s presence in in the story, so you go back and tell the story of the restaurant in the midst of the main story, and once you’ve gotten the listener up to speed on the restaurant, you return to the primary story? Half Sick of Shadows does that about every other chapter. But Sebastian doesn’t really indicate that you’re in the midst of a flashback. You just have to figure that out about a page into it while you’re wondering why they’ve gone from being on the road to Camelot to being back at a party in Avalon.

Then there are the anachronisms… So when you’re dealing with Arthurian lore, and you say something that basically puts the story in a fantastical version of our world, rather than a completely made-up fantastical world, then you have to be careful about the items that show up in your book. For example: if the feeling you’re aiming for is early-Medieval England (pre-1200 or so), then maybe don’t talk about petticoats (which are post-14th century), forks (which came to western Europe after the 1490s) oranges or bell sleeves (which- in the form that we know them- didn’t get to England until about the 1500s), tea and by extension teacups (after 1650), corsets (post-1810s), or chenille (which was invented in the 1700s but not named chenille until about the 1920s). Why do you need to be careful about the items that show up in your Medieval-themed story? Because having things out of time can knock a reader out of the flow of the story (which happened every time I came across any of these items). Think of a contemporary story set in, say, 2018. If your character has Siri start up a playlist on Spotify, but then sits down with their home computer and had to connect to the internet via dial-up so they can do a search on AltaVista before they can chat on AIM, then it’s going to feel very disjointed to readers who know that AltaVista and AIM are 1990s services, while Siri and Spotify are in general use fifteen to twenty years later.

And then there’s the “feminism” of the book. On the magical island of Avalon, everyone gets to run around and wear their hair down and have sex with whoever and do whatever else they want to do. In the stuffy court of Camelot, meanwhile, magic is illegal (which sucks for the magical girls from Avalon), but otherwise Morgana spends her time whining that she’ll have to put her hair up, wear a corset, drink tea, and make conversation with other women.

So. In this world, the patriarchy demands that women take care of their hair, wear underwear, drink tea, and be polite. Oh, the humanity.

In the “gender equal” kingdom that the Scooby gang travels to, the women wear their hair down all the time, cut their skirts off at their knees, go running wildly through the woods, use punitive magics and wield swords. Is that… feminist? I guess? If you squint real hard and look at it from a certain point of view. *sighs* The older I get, the leerier I grow of the notion that feminism in fantasy rejects the roles women have traditionally taken up (caregivers, teachers, craftspeople) in favor of their taking up traditionally male roles (warriors, generals, knights, etc). As though strength is only achieved through knowledge of weaponry and fighting.

And sure, the Medieval era was misogynistic. Most eras of history have been. But with her trite dismissal of all Arthurian lore as this sexist, patriarchal set of stories, Sebastian shows a complete lack of understanding of Medieval history, Arthurian lore itself, and why it has endured in the popular imagination for the past 1200 years. If you’re interested in a quality Arthurian retelling, try Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy (The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, and The Last Enchantment) or just find some good Merlin fanfic on AO3. There are plenty of stories there that are miles better than Half Sick of Shadows.

The Uncrowned King is the second book of Michelle West’s Sun Sword series, which details the conflicts between the Essaiylean Empire of the south and the Dominion of Annagar in the north. They are wildly different cultures with differing religions, differing views of magic, gender roles, what makes a good warrior, how generations achieve power, and basically everything else. Neither land feels like it’s based on any particular historical culture, so you have to pay attention to the world building (which is not delivered via info-dumping, but mostly in character dialogue and reactions) because there’s very little shorthand you can rely on to tell you what’s what. And I think that’s fantastic, because it allows to world to be its own thing. The Uncrowned King feels a little slower than the first book, The Broken Crown (though looking back at both, they have similar pacing, and book two feels slower only because I’m more familiar with the world now and I’m looking forward to things happening, rather than trying to learn about the world and its people). Valedan did the thing (mostly), Jewel learned the things (mostly), and it seems as though everyone will be heading back south in the third book, The Shining Court, which will be interesting (assuming I’m right) given how rigid the Dominion’s social hierarchy is verses the much more flexible one of the Empire.

I finally finished my big book for June: Ovid’s Metamorphoses. You can kind of think about it as Ovid’s fanfiction mashup of The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, and basically all the other stories of Greek mythology where someone changes into something else, because it’s over 600 pages of “she/he turned into a dog/tree/flower/rock/body of water/constellation/different gender/etc”. Raeburn’s translation is fun and fast-paced, but after about the 350 page mark, I was ready to be done with it. I’ve read all the books that went into this plus plenty of other Greek mythology, so there wasn’t much that was new to me there. It’s a lot of people and gods transforming into things, and then the story’s over. Repeat ad infinitum, until you get to the tale of the Trojan war, and then after that there’s a brief screed about vegetarianism (seriously), and then a bit about how fantastic Julius Caesar was. So. Yeah. I’ve read Metamorphoses now, and I definitely prefer reading about Norse mythology these days.

What I’m Currently Reading:

I’ve been meaning to reread part of all of the Winternight trilogy since I finished reading The Winter of the Witch back when it came out. The fact that it’s been abysmally hot makes me want to dive into a book set during a Russian winter. Yes, please. Bring me all the snow. It also fulfills my team’s prompt for the Shelf Space Discord server’s readathen (Nyx- read the final book of a trilogy or series). So wins all around! At this point in the story, Vasya has taken the road through Midnight and is searching for someone she needs to help her restore the proper order to Rus’, as the Bear is sowing chaos throughout the land. She’s also on her way to becoming a power in her own right. I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed these books. They’re beautifully written, and Vasya is a fantastic character who finds strength and wisdom within herself without disdaining the advice of others, and without demeaning the life her sister has accepted for herself.

What I’m Planning to Read This Week:

I’ve had Big Machine on my shelf for about a year and fully intended to read it all this time, and then never got around to it. But the Dionysus prompt for the Shelf Space Discord server’s readathon is to ‘read a book with a white or a red cover’, and this one is both. So I’m going to get to it this week. Should be good. I’ve read two other books by LaValle, and they were both fantastic.

The Treason of Isengard is the next entry in the History of Middle-earth. I’m assuming that this is the volume when Trotter the mysterious wandering Hobbit with wooden shoes (or wooden feet) turns into Strider, the strange man of the north who turns out to have a more important background than we all think when we meet him. Should be fun. The previous volume, The Return of the Shadow, was a lot of fun, as you get to see the various iterations of the first part of The Fellowship of the Ring, and how the tale grew in the telling.

About That Writing Thing:

Not a lot of progress this week thanks to being tired. But I finished off chapter 11 of the fantasy work in progress, and I know which scene I need to start with for Chapter 12. Then there’s going to be a time jump of several days, because no one wants to see the characters trudging overland through the rain for six to ten days. Slow progress is progress. And I have several days off this week, so I’ll have time for writing.

I will have time for writing.

I will.


I also typed out a brief prologue to the science fiction fanfic I’m tentatively working on. I’m going to have to completely redo it, as I looked up the Wiki for the fandom and found out a bunch of things about the characters’ backgrounds that has tweaked my views of them. Hence the rewrite of the prologue. But that’s fine. It was only about 1,000 words and would probably have been radically changed regardless. Because that’s how writing goes.

10 thoughts on “Sunday Sum-Up: June 20, 2021

  1. I was vastly entertained by your review of Half Sick of Shadows. Petticoats?? Did the author even TRY to do research? Why didn’t an editor say something? Did everyone just think, “Oh, yes, petticoats seem old-timey, why not?” So hilarious.

    And, er, running around half-clad with their hair down is inherently more feminist than wearing clothes and drinking tea? I think both lifestyles are neutral. It’s not inherently better to refuse to wear an updo. Or to style one’s hair. This just sounds very strange.

  2. There were so many anachronisms! After a while, I just had to decide that this was a pre-Raphaelite version of Arthurian lore. The frustrating thing is that it doesn’t even take that long to research the basics of these things. Wikipedia was all I needed for the things I wasn’t sure of the timeline on.

    I’m totally neutral on wearing hair up or down, too. But Camelot was described as repressive to women, but the only thing the characters really dwelled on (aside from magic being illegal, which was true for men or women) were corsets and wearing their hair up. It was so annoying. It’s like in the 14 years Sebastian spent writing this book, she never even read a Wikipedia article about the Medieval period to get an idea of the time.

    I’ll have a longer review for NetGalley, so you’ll have that to look forward to….

  3. It was an immensely frustrating book. Why do some people think feminism is about wearing short skirts and having the power to kill someone? That’s not what equality is about! But I might have been able to overlook it had the structure not been so muddled. It was a disappointing book all around.

  4. The weather really can wipe us out, especially when you’ve got the humidity added to the temperature. Days like that I just want to sit inside and read, which I suppose isn’t all that bad. 🙂 I still have Katherine Arden’s The Bear and The Nightingale sitting on a bookshelf that’s most easily seen to remind me it’s one I’d like to read sooner than most of the others.

  5. Humidity is the worst. I went for a walk the other day when the temperature was (relatively) low, but I didn’t realize that the humidity was about 80%, and it was gross. Ugh.

    The Bear and the Nightingale is wonderful! It’s an incredibly atmospheric introduction to the world. Arden’s writing is fantastic.

  6. I could see one or two things slipping through, like maybe you just did not consider that the fork was not always around. But I would thinks some of these things are more obvious–and an editor would note them, as well!

    Yeah, I get that being told you have to wear your hair up is not great, but…when you consider all the other issues going on, is that really the problem you want to focus on? XD

  7. Right?? It just struck me as so bizarre that she was fixated on hairstyles and corsets when there were so many issues present in the Medieval era and in Arthurian lore that she could have dealt with. But no, clothes and hair get the attention. Ugh.

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