I hope you will humor me with an unusual blog post… for me, at least. I’d like to give a book review. One that morphs into a bit of an author review. I am a huge fan of Diana Gabaldon and her Outlander series. I mean, huge. So huge that for my birthday, my husband bought two very expensive tickets for me and a fellow-fan friend to go watch her talk about her upcoming book this summer. We can hardly wait.
Since I (of course) follow her on Facebook, I had also been looking forward to her short story “Virgins” in the Dangerous Women anthology edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, released December of last year. I pre-ordered the anthology months ahead of time and eagerly anticipated its download to my Kindle. When it arrived, I used the Table of Contents to navigate to her story first.
Now, I was coming off of a bit of a Brandon Sanderson binge. I remarked to my husband when it showed up, that 6 of the 7 most recent books on my Kindle had Sanderson in them. I had downloaded a different anthology that he was in (haven’t read it yet) and then read all four of his wonderful, magical, delightful, unpredictable Mistborn books and his also wonderful, magical, delightful, maybe slightly-more-predictable children’s book, The Rithmatist.
“Too bad he’s not in this anthology too,” I remarked.
“I don’t think he’s quite the same type of author as Gabaldon and Martin,” he replied, referring to their propensity for violence and sex. (Because of the scenes I choose to tell him about, I think he has a less-than-accurate view of Outlander if he takes the same disdainful view of it that he does A Game of Thrones.)
To my great amusement, when I concluded my reading of Virgins (it was ok – I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t enough on its own to redeem the price I paid for the entire anthology. Too much anticipation, perhaps.), I noticed that Sanderson actually did have a story in the book: “Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell”.
I fell in love. It tells the story of an aging woman who runs an inn in some alternate dangerous world. It had all the right short story twists and surprises and it exposed me to yet another Sanderson world that I sincerely hope I get to read more about some day. There are 21 stories in this book and I read them over the course of 2 1/2 months, so I can’t remember them all clearly, but this one was easily one of my top 3-5 stories.
I then returned to the start of the book to see what these other authors had in store for me.
First up, Joe Abercrombie’s “Some Desperado.” I will be searching for more books by this author. The writing was excellent, the plot twists were great, character development wonderful. Unlike with Sanderson’s tale, it didn’t leave me begging for more; it just left me satisfied. And eager to read more of his works.
From there (no, I’m not going to review all 21 stories – just hitting the highlights!), I moved to Megan Abbott’s “My Heart is Either Broken,” the tale of a man whose wife is suspected of killing their daughter and he simply can’t come to terms with it. In my mind, the perfect short story makes you think you know what’s going on, delivers a twist, and then another one, and you are left stunned. This story delivered full force. At this point, I was in love with the anthology because three consecutive stories had blown my socks off.
I yawned through the next one, not exactly sure which woman was supposed to be the dangerous one. The next (“The Hands That Are Not There” by Melinda Snodgrass) intrigued me with the fantasy world it depicted and expertly pulled off one of those “so what’s real?” questions.
Then I got to Jim Butcher’s “Bombshells.” Like Gabaldon’s “Virgins,” this story came out of his existing body of work, The Dresden Files, which sounded vaguely familiar to me. I expected to perhaps not connect with the story since I wasn’t familiar with his series (neither the book nor TV series). Nope. Fell in love. Asked for and received Dresden Files books for Christmas.
The next three (“Raisa Stepanova” by Carrie Vaughn, “Wrestling Jesus” by Joe R. Lansdale, and “Neighbors” by Megan Lindholm) were excellent reads. The first is about an uber-competetive female Russian fighter pilot in WWII. The next, about an old “professional” wrestler bewitched by a beautiful and seductive (to him, at least) woman. The last, a woman suffering from Alzheimer’s and her warped view of her neighborhood around her. I thoroughly enjoyed them all.
So far, I was feeling pretty good. Then I read “I Know How to Pick ’Em” by Lawrence Block and it ticked me off. Not the story, but its inclusion in this particular anthology. Don’t get me wrong, the story was still brutal: a crime thriller with a really sadistic character graphically described. Still, the slow nature of the reveal was good and the writing was solid.
*** Small Spoiler Alert – skip the next paragraph if you want ***
However, the anthology is described as “showcas[ing] the supposedly weaker sex’s capacity for magic, violence, and mayhem.” And… slight spoiler alert here… this story appears, at first, to be describing a dangerous woman, but when it’s all said and done, you realize it’s just a depraved and dangerous man. One that preys on unsuspecting women that he convinces himself are dangerous, but who actually aren’t.
*** End Spoiler Alert ***
So, while the story was good, I felt very strongly that the editors should not have included it. It didn’t fit my (highly legalistic) interpretation of the intent of the collection.
“The Girl in the Mirror” by Lev Grossman, from the Magicians series, left me rolling my eyes. I found the allegedly “dangerous” girl to be frivolous and full of herself and it left me feeling the entire story was frivolous. I mean, I think it was the writer’s intent: it’s a teenage girl that thinks all the wrong things are important and she’s so much better and more important than she is. But it annoyed me way too much. And the ending fell flat for me. (Ironically, I just looked at a review of all the stories I found online, complete with grades, and this one was one of that reviewer’s favorites. Different strokes, I guess.)
This post is getting long so I’ll try to wrap it up so I can get to my major discovery at the end of the book. The last story in the anthology was Martin’s “The Princess and the Queen, or, the Blacks and the Greens” from his A Song of Ice and Fire series (often referred to by the name of the first book: A Game of Thrones).
Now, that series has been on my reading list for awhile now. In fact, when I finished (finally!) reading The Wheel of Time, I put out a poll among my friends on what I should read next. The choices were Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson, The Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss, or A Song of Ice and Fire.
My husband strongly recommended Kingkiller, stating that I had been steeped in Sanderson long enough, and so that’s what I read. (Rothfuss’s writing is simply amazing, by the way. The only thing that upset me was that my husband tricked me into starting a series that was still in progress.) I’ve since read Mistborn too so Martin’s epic tale was rising toward the top of my reading list. I had imagined that I would read the Divergent series, then a couple of Sanderson books my family loves, then the new Outlander book, and by mid summer, get started on A Game of Thrones.
But now it’s slipped down around “if I can’t think of something else to read, maybe I’ll give it a try, just to see.” I had just read 20 (for the most part) excellent examples of short fiction. Those authors made me laugh and cry and swoon. They made my heart race. They made me care about the characters. They surprised me. Elated me.
Here’s how I would summarize Martin’s story: In grand historic tones, with sweeping brush strokes, he describes an epic battle for the throne between two tyrannical, unlikeable characters in which he introduces you to 50 characters with long titles and then kills 40 of them in horrifyingly awful ways, maims the other 10, and leaves one of them nominally on the throne by the end. There is tremendous betrayal and backstabbing and turns of fate as the war rages on.
The problem was, I didn’t care about any of them. None of them at all. I picked a side early on – the throne seeker who the previous King had said was to be his heir, but she turned out to be just as awful as the other guy so I didn’t like her at all. I had trouble keeping track of whose side people were on so I’d be reading about a battle between two lords and be unable to remember which side was which, so I had no sense of hope and anticipation on who I wanted to win. Then he’d say stuff like “and 200 people died that day, including so-and-so, lord of thus-and-such.” That was the first mention of so-and-so, so pray tell me, why do I care that he (in particular) died? He’d also make strange statements (like “the Iron Throne cut her so astute observers knew her reign would be brief”) without explaining what any of that meant.
I found it tedious and uninteresting. I read it just to be able to say I had finished them all. I can only assume that if I was a Game of Thrones fan, I likely would have better understood what was happening and thus (hopefully) enjoyed it more. But now I will likely never be a Game of Thrones fan. I didn’t like the style of writing. As one friend put it, I don’t want to have to take notes while I’m reading. If he’s going to throw a whole bunch of people at me and kill off most of them, I’m not going to bother.
Maybe he gives more character development in his main stories. Maybe I’d care about the characters and thus keep track better. But here’s the thing. I think it’s telling that two of the stories that I found kind of flat – this one and Gabaldon’s – were taken from existing universes. I must assume, especially after reading the reviewer’s dislike of Virgins in the link above, that both authors wrote for their existing audiences instead of trying to pull more people in. Contrast that to the Dresden Files tale (and, as it turns out, Joe Abercrombie’s tale, which I didn’t even know came from something larger), and I think these two big name authors failed the new readers. I loved the latter two stories. They were pulled off in a way that didn’t force readers to rely on their existing knowledge of the characters or the world.
I can vouch for Gabaldon. Her stories are excellent, her writing superb. She just didn’t quite pull off her usual success here in my mind. Martin? You can try to vouch for him if you want – I’ll listen, but there’s just too many great authors out there that, at this point, I know I would love to read. I fear his stories will never again come so close to the front of my queue.