March started pretty slow on the reading front but, well. Actually ended with me taking more things off Mt. TBR than putting on it, so… that’s always a plus. I guess.
Also note: new additions from the March Never Never Book Box!
Faith, Vol. 2
So you may remember my issues with the, erm, first issues of Faith last month. Nonetheless, as promised I picked up volume two in the series and am pleased to report I’m still really enjoying it. Faith is basically lighthearted geeky nonsense fun, with these stories seeing the titular character meeting with her celebrity crush—an actor famed for his portrayal of superheroes in films, and who’s an Obvious Joke on the MCU’s Stable of Chrises—as well as attending a con, and beginning a regular column at her day-job-Buzzfeed analogue.
This issue was mostly fun, but with one little niggling holdover from my problems with the first. Three of the main male characters are romantically linked to Faith in some way—her current boyfriend, her ex, and her celebrity crush—and they all… well. They all basically look the same. And I get that this is because Faith has A Type… it’s just that Faith’s Type is “blond-haired blue-eyed Aryan supergod” and, er… given both Faith’s looks, plus the Problems With The First Volume, and… uh. Well…
Yeah. About that…
Robin D. Laws, New Tales of the Yellow Sign
This was a reward I got for backing The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, so saying I was not… filled with high expectations for it is an understatement (game tie-in stories can be, yanno, patchy). Which is why it was a delightful surprise to absolutely devour this whole thing in two days.
The stories are definitely written as tie-ins to the game world (or, more accurately, the four main game settings) rather than the more generic mythos, which for whatever reason I didn’t expect, so the first time one story referenced another lead to an unexpected little jolt. The order of stories, too, starts with the more “mundane” (“Full Bleed”, “Gaps”), moves through the maybe-our-world (“The Blood on the Walls in the Fortress”), settles fully in on-shit-AU territory (“A Boat Full of Popes”, “The Dog”)… then circles back around to the maybe-real (“Fuck You You’re Not Getting Out of This Car”). Connecting them all—and because this is The King in Yellow we’re talking about here—is a non-stop fest of unreliable narrators, paranoia, delusions, alien weirdness, and just generally unpleasant people. As a bonus extra, some of these stories are legitimately creepy (looking at you, “Distressing Notification”), to the point where I confess to turning on my light while reading them in bed alone at night. Also, there’s a lot more Toronto than I’m used to seeing in horror stories but, yanno. Go figure.
Favorites in the collection include “The Blood on the Wall in the Fortress”, “Distressing Notification”, and “The Dog”, all for different reasons. Meanwhile, “Gaps” and “Pendulous” felt like the weakest… but only because they both started strong then seemed to taper out. All-in-all, however, this collection was pretty much right up my alley and I am now very, very excited to get my grubby little claws on the final game.
Matt Ruff, Lovecraft Country
Yeah, I admit it; New Tales of the Yellow Sign sent me on a mythos-binge, hence grabbing Lovecraft Country off the ol’ pile. First things first: I absolutely devoured this novel and pretty much love reading it while I was reading it. The only problem was that enthusiasm didn’t quite survive my post-reading experience and now, as I write this, maybe twenty minutes after closing the last virtual page, I feel kinda… hm.
First things first: This book is not, in fact, actually a Lovecraftian mythos book, despite the title. Lovecraft is mentioned, and the supernatural elements of the story are “Lovecraft-ish”, but the book’s own mythology is less “unnameable terrors from beyond the stars!” and more “lol evil wizards did it”. Which isn’t to say there aren’t some effective moments. The book itself is a series of interconnected pseudo-novellas—a format I’m predisposed to liking, because fanfic basically—of which I think the first (“Lovecraft Country”, a sort of it’s-like-Shadow-Over-Innsmouth-but-racists-are-the-real-fishmen!) and the penultimate (“Horace and the Devil Doll”, a riff on that film about the evil “tiki” doll, but also sort of a commentary on the often-hidden violence racist visual portrayals can inflict on the young) are the most effective. I also very much enjoyed the structure of the stories, effectively linking together to tell the multi-generational history of an African American family in the dying days of Jim Crow.
The problem is that, while the individual stories worked, the overall meta-narrative… not so much. Partly because the main antagonist is called Braithwaite, which meant whenever he was on-page all I could think about was this goddamn song. But mostly because I actually kinda liked the guy in a I-know-he’s-an-asshole-but-I-kinda-want-him-to-get-away-with-it way, and thought his eventual downfall in the narrative felt… underwhelming and kinda cheap. Actually, the whole ending kinda did, which was the main let down for a novel that was otherwise page-curlingly thick with threat and tension.
The other issue…
Okay, well. Matt Ruff is, near as I can tell, white. And it’s not like I don’t believe a white dude can never write about people of color (I mean, that would be hypocritical at minimum) but…
… but this book is not just “Lovecraftian horror but with Black protagonists”. It’s “Jim Crow stories but with a veneer of Lovecraftian horror”, and those are… some pretty different things. I’m not the person to answer whether or not I think it was Ruff’s place to tell a tale of Jim Crow through African American eyes, or whether he did it effectively. But for a book that examines themes like minstrelsy and the exploitation of Black pain for white benefit… ye-ee-eah. I’m just… yeah.
(Not to mention the scene with Montrose and the kid. Which… yikes. I get that Montrose is supposed to be a damaged character, but I also can’t help but feel Ruff sets that up only to shy away from going anywhere with it, maybe out of some kind of reluctance to make true antiheroes out of his Black cast.)
Still. All that being said, overall I did enjoy Lovecraft Country a great deal, which is why I’m super-jazzed that there’s an HBO adaptation in the works, with Jordan Peele and Misha Green as director and screenwriter respectively. And I will definitely be checking out more of Ruff’s work, as well.
Tansy Rayner Roberts, Splashdance Silver (Mocklore #1)
(Standard disclaimer: Roberts is a local author, we’ve met briefly, and share mutual friends.)
You know how, sometimes, you read a book and think to yourself, “Damn. I wish I’d read that years ago?” Well, damn. I wish I’d read this book years ago. Specifically, in 1998, when it was first published. That was about the age I was both, a) getting into Terry Pratchett, and b) realising a lot of “standard” fantasy didn’t work for me.1 Splashdance wouldn’t have done anything to help the latter, but it’s tonally similar enough to the former—something Roberts admits as an influence in the afterward—while still managing to be something fourteen-year-old me would’ve loved without having to do all of the, um, performative tomboying that was pretty much a defining characteristic of being a nerdy girl in the late 90s.
That being said, this book reads a little differently at age thirty-four than it would’ve twenty years ago, and certain elements have… held up better than others. On the other hand, this is Roberts’s first novel and she was all of nineteen (!!!) when she wrote it, so if maybe some of the (for example) slap-slap-kiss pseudo-romance stuff feels like A Product of Its Era then… y’know. It happens.
Still a wonderfully fun start, and I’m itching to read the rest of the series.
Pathfinder: Bestiary 3
When in doubt, read an RPG book. And I always did love me a monster manual. Lots of stuff in here from various Asian and Middle Eastern mythologies, plus… Alice in Wonderland? Sure. Lets go with that.
Related: My Local Gaming Store has at least six volumes of Pathfinder bestiaries. That’s… a lot of monsters, right there.
Brom, Krampus: The Yule Lord
So it’s sort of odd to think about it now, but when The Simpsons first came out it was really controversial. Because it was both, a) a cartoon, and b) didn’t show a “perfect” sitcom family, it was considered “subversive” and was Destroying Today’s Youth or, like. Whatever. Quite a lot of my friends at the time (i.e. the early 90s) weren’t allowed to watch the show, so we kind of grew up with this implicit assumption about its edginess.
It wasn’t until much later, casually browsing books in the uni’s coop, that I came across an essay deconstructing this assumption. The tl;dr of it is that, far from being a bastion of radical progressivism, The Simpsons is actually deeply conservative; pretty much every problem in the show, for example, is solved by reverting to the mean of God or Family (or both). While not a radical critique by today’s standards, it was eye-opening to teenage me. It’s also not just applicable to The Simpsons; pretty much every bastion of “edgy” Gen X media still has this same kind of conservative core, even when it flirts with the trappings of subversion (see also Buffy, South Park, and so on).
I mention this because it’s the main thing I was thinking reading Krampus. Some more backstory: Brom is a artist I’ve admired since I was a kid, and I own multiple collections of his work, as well one of his other books (Plucker). I’ve wanted to read Krampus pretty much since I first heard about it, because a) it has a seven-foot horned dude as a protagonist, and I kind of have a soft spot for that, b) it uses Norse mythology as its backdrop, which ditto, and c) as someone who also hates Christmas I feel Krampus really gets me, yanno?2 So I was totally jazzed to read this. And, good things first: Krampus (the character) is great, and makes every scene he’s in. It’s just… kinda a shame about everything else.
Because, spoiler alert (and there are going to be some serious spoilers here) Krampus is really only a secondary character. The main protagonist is a deadbeat redneck called Jesse, and the main plot is about Jesse trying to, like, reclaim his ex and his daughter (who left him because he was a deadbeat redneck) because of course it is. To say I did not like or empathize with Jesse as a main character is putting is mildly, which makes the first third of the book (i.e. before Krampus shows up and kicks off the B-plot) somewhat tedious. This isn’t really Jesse’s fault per se—he’s not an outright horrible character, although I could do without all the homophobia, thanks—so much as I just find his variety of Aw-Shucks-Good-Ol’-Boy All American Male™ unengaging. YMMV.
My other issue with the narrative, tying this back into the anecdote above, is it does that whole Gen X “subversive-but-not-really” thing. Because, yeah. Krampus comes and beheads Santa (seriously) and successfully spreads the Spirit of Yule, at least in one shitty little West Virginian town. Except none of this is actually about Krampus, or about deconstructing Christmas, or commentary on Christian co-option of heathen/pagan traditions. It’s all just a backdrop through which to teach Jesse An Important Lesson in order for him to Man Up and Reclaim His Status With His Wimmin. It’s no surprise to say that, by the end of the story, this has happened (good thing the New Boyfriend turned out to be a psycho serial killer! How convenient! Ladies, look what happens when you reject the Nice Guy™ amirite?). I was expecting that so… ugh. Whatever. What I was less enthusiastic about (big spoilers) is the part where God (yes really) literally resurrects the dead Santa (yes really), and sends him to murder Krampus with the help of a pair of angels (yes really). As his literal Last Dying Wish, Krampus hands his magical Santa/Loki Sack (not a euphemism… or is it) to Jesse with instructions to keep it out of Santa’s hands. This is Santa who, incidentally, has previously been established as literally desecrating multiple religious traditions, enslaving/imprisoning Krampus for centuries in order to steal the sack in the first place, then performing extensive blood magic on it to make it work. Like, don’t get me wrong, Krampus is kind of an asshole… but Santa is the book’s villain, and is presented as being villainous because of his self-serving pious hypocrisy (i.e. acting charitably basically because he nuts to the feeling while simultaneously performing mass nefarious deeds to keep up the facade).
So Jesse takes the magic sack, stuffs his girlfriend’s new boyfriend it in, sending him to Hel… and then literally just hands the thing back to Santa when he shows up and asks.
Like… dude. Really? The book’s entire plot has been about keeping the sack away from Santa, ref. Krampus’s Dying Wish, above. And this is what I mean about the Gen X tendency to flirt with subversion but cower in the status quo. Because Krampus represents The Other—with his entourage of fallen women and indigenous minions—and for a while Jesse is (literally) transformed into one of them. Except unlike Krampus, who can never not be Krampus, Jesse’s experience with “otherness” only exists as a Life Lesson to teach him how to excel within mainstream society. Once he’s learnt that, he’s free to discard the trappings of the outsider—actually, Krampus literally gives him the option whether to do this or not, which Jesse eagerly takes—while Krampus’s death is presented as “magical” and “the-real-Krampus-is-the-one-that-lives-in-your-heart-sly-nosetap”.
And I just… yikes.
Maybe it’s just that I’m Old and Cranky and also blessed now with media written either by or for Millennial “outsiders”, i.e. women and people of color and the QUILTBAG community, meaning this sort of narrative just doesn’t cut it for me any more. The outsider/monster does not actually have to die; it can have its own fulfilling narrative arc and happily ever after. All of which is to say that I don’t think Krampus is a bad book… it’s just a book that is probably only going to work for you if you’re a straight white cis dude who’s totally okay with appropriating “outsider” culture when it’s hip or useful and discarding it when it gets messy or infringes when you’ve already got yours. So, like. If you’re the kind of guy who’s going to hand over the Santa sack because not resisting is easier than trying to fight for someone else’s cause then, yeah. Okay. This book is probably for you.
But for the rest of us—particularly those who can’t hide or discard our “otherness”, our “monstrosity”—then… yeah, nah. Not so much.
(The art still is great, though.)