I love essays, particularly funny ones. Find me a book of them and I will happily hand over $12 for the privilege of reading it. And this one starts off really well, because there's a raccoon attack. Raccoons to the head are funny. It's a basic rule of writing, right up there next to "show, don't tell." The premise is promising, too: Rouse moved from the city (more on this later) to rural Michigan (with his long-suffering boyfriend Gary) so that he could pursue a career in writing. Fish out of water! Raccoon attacks! Seriously, how could this be bad?
Well. It isn't entirely bad. But it isn't good, either. For one thing, when he's not wearing a live raccoon as an exceptionally angry hat, Rouse isn't actually funny, and that's a book killer. In this kind of memoir, you're basically sharing the brain of the writer. He has to show you all his random warts and neuroses or there's nothing for him to write about, but he has to be able to make you laugh with him (or at him - that also works) or, well, you're just spending your time with some random jerk's warts and neuroses, and you could do the same thing by getting stuck on an elevator with a guy from Marketing. Every other flaw this book has (sliding focus, sudden random religious tangent in the middle, shrieking intolerance, race issues, playing gay stereotypes up to the point where I expect him to start typing with a lisp) would be forgivable, or at least mostly tolerable, if Rouse could make you laugh. But he can't, or at least he couldn't make me laugh. He couldn't even make me smile, except in the first chapter, and a guy can't get attacked by a raccoon every day.
But my second issue is the one I will always remember about this book. See, okay - you know how sometimes you'll make an assumption early on, and it will be so ingrained that you'll never question it, even in the face of evidence to the contrary, until finally something leaps up and forces you to? And then you can feel your skull being rearranged, all, "The Fiddler on the Roof ISN'T set in 1970s Canada! Which probably means Canadians aren't vicious anti-semites, and I should probably stop worrying that these Quebecois are going to kill me!" (Yes, I was very young when I made the assumption, but it lasted for years. I still sometimes have to take a deep breath before I out myself as a Jew to someone from Saskatchewan.) I had a minor case of this in this book. See, I read the title and made the obvious assumption. And then, several chapters in, I discovered that the city in question is St. Louis. Which. Um. I live in Los Angeles (or, okay, near it, but that's pretty much what everyone who lives here does). It's a pretty big city. But it isn't the city. The only city in the United States that gets a definite article is New York City. Chicago is a city. Houston is a city. New York City is the city. And St. Louis, which is the fifty-second largest city in the U.S., ranked just below Wichita, with a population of 350k, most definitely is not. When I realized that the city of the title was St. Louis, that was my laugh-out-loud moment for this book.
(Note: Yes, I am aware that this is not universally true of everyone in the United States. In rural areas, as I understand it, the city is whichever one you drive to for shopping. But everywhere I've ever lived, New York City has been the city, and it would never occur to me that anyone who wrote that in a book title would mean anything else.)
Books I Love: The Thief Series (The Thief, The Queen of Attolia, and The King of Attolia), by Megan Whalen Turner
Now. I am hoping that most of you have already read this series and are eagerly, even desperately, awaiting the next installment (due March 23, so if you haven't read these, now is the perfect time to start). But I have this sneaking fear that some of you have not, and obviously it is my personal duty to correct that. This series is incredible, with amazing characters and world-building and plot and action and one of the weirdest romances I personally have ever encountered in fiction. (For serious, this is a romance - you know, when I see romantic relationships in fiction, I generally try to recast them with my fannish favorites, but it is hard for me to think of even a single popular fannish pairing that might fit with this romance. Okay. I can think of one. But that's it.) But, actually, that's not what I want to talk about when it comes to these books.
Here are two additional reasons, besides awesomeness and the ability to make your heart sing, that you should read these:
- Stepping it up a notch. If you've ever written or wanted to write a series, in fan fiction or original fiction, you should read The Thief and The Queen of Attolia. This is one of the few times when the second book of a series is an order of magnitude better than the first (and the first is really damn good). And the thing is, it's that way for a reason.
The author took some serious risks when she started The Queen of Attolia; she didn't let her characters or her situations stay static. She looked at what she'd done and said, hey, that was good, but how can I move from that? How can I get these characters to where I need them to go? And then she took the steps she needed to take, and let me tell you, those were some drastic steps. But they work, and they take the series from amazing to sublime.
Megan Whalen Turner could have rested on her laurels. She totally did not. This is how you write a series, people. (Or you can take a different road and make your sequels into an endless series of bondage scenes and holidays, which I call the Whips and Presents Method. Not my favorite, but it works for some people. You can also just keep writing the same story with the same plot and characters, changing the proper names as necessary to fulfill your contracts; I think of this as the Grimes Method, and it also works for some. But I'd rather you went the Turner route.)
- The Queen of Attolia. The character, I mean. When I was a kid, I read everything. (No, really, everything, including many things I should not have. My mother used to take me to a specialty children's bookstore, hand me over to an innocent employee who had no idea how difficult her life was about to become, and say, "If you can find something she hasn't read, I'll buy it." She spent the next few hours sipping coffee somewhere, and I spent the next few hours saying, "I've read it.") I especially loved books that had fantasy elements. But I was bothered by the fact that they were always about either a) people randomly selected by fate for greatness or b) people born to be great. I knew I would never find an amulet that granted half wishes or a sand fairy, and I knew I wasn't the secret ruler of the desert tribe or the last Old One.
So I wanted to read a book about a person who became great, who had no special abilities or special item but still used her ordinary abilities to achieve an amazing goal. I looked and looked for that person and never found her. And then I did: Attolia. Turner doesn't spare her at all - Attolia is definitely the person achieving her goal has made her into. She's not kind. She's not fun. You would not want to play croquet with her, and you would not want to turn your back on her. But she is great, and she's great because she decided to be. She fought for it and keeps on fighting for it, using all her intelligence and all her determination, because that's all she's ever had to fight with. I love that. And I love that there is one person in the books who loves it, too.