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Sunday, February 28, 2016

Dragon Scale Lute: The Music of the Unpredictable Chinese Princess

  What attracted me to the fantasy Dragon Scale Lute by J.C. Kang was the word "lute".  I was drawn to the musical aspect of the novel.  I was also interested in the fact that the book takes place in an alternate version of China.  I hoped that the dragon would be a Chinese dragon rather than a Western dragon.  He turned out to be more like a Western dragon, but it didn't matter.  To my great relief,  the dragon pretty much stays in the background.  I don't want to read about giant fire breathing lizards that fly.  I'd much rather read about people.  I got my wish. I received a free copy from the author in return for this review. 

                               


Based on the cover you'd think this was a romance.  The female character is carrying a musical instrument, but she looks insipid and is dressed in faded pastels which implies timidity.  From this image, I got the impression that she's a decorative frail maiden with no real personality who swoons a great deal.  

I'm delighted to say that the protagonist, Princess Kaiya, is anything but timid.  She's unpredictable, bold, incredibly stubborn and a very talented singer/musician. Unfortunately, she does swoon and she does it often but it doesn't happen for the reason that you'd expect based on that cover- i.e. an attention getting strategy calculated to draw the sympathy of the romantic hero.  No, the swooning has to do with her music which has power that no one ever expected.  

There is a romantic hero and a strong romantic element, but anyone who thinks that this is a romance is likely to be disappointed.   The handsome prince is from alternate India, and he's got the invasion of his country on his mind.  There's a connection between him and Princess Kaiya, but he has other priorities and readers would think that she's a bit young at fourteen for a committed relationship.  On the other hand, Shakespeare's Juliet was that age and just as extreme in her behavior and emotions as Princess Kaiya. Shakespeare lived in an environment where fourteen year old girls got married to much older men.  That happens to Chinese Princesses too.  Her father is the Emperor of alternate China, and his plan is to use Kaiya to forge a political alliance with an important man.  The hero may be a prince, but he and alternate India apparently aren't important when you're thinking on an imperial scale.  The Emperor cares about his daughter, but he isn't about to throw away the political capital that she represents.

There is an alternate character viewpoint of  a female spy who is clever and has terrific martial arts abilities.  I tend to like this type of character, but her personality seems bland compared to Kaiya's.   I was only interested in her when she became much more pivotal to the plot toward the end of the book.   And still, Kaiya takes the limelight at that point by being incredibly daring, but also incredibly foolish. This is not the first time that the Princess made a foolish decision.  If she were older with more life experience, I would call Kaiya TSTL (Too Stupid To Live).  But she's a teenager and can't be expected to have mature judgment.

I tolerated Kaiya's escapades because I was interested in her music and her attempts to use it to have a strong impact on people.  It's called magic, but it's essentially a paranormal ability called projective empathy.   She is able to  project her emotions through her music so that those who hear it are emotionally affected.  She has no control over when this ability will manifest or how long she can affect people. 

Perhaps she'll eventually get more control over her gift with the help of an elf lord.  Elf lords in China?  Well that's one of the reasons why it's obviously an alternate China.   J.C. Kang mashes up Eastern and Western folklore in Dragon Scale Lute.   Perhaps this inclination to mix cultures is due to his being an Asian American writer who has led a multi-cultural life.

I enjoyed reading this book.  It was quite suspenseful because I never knew how Princess Kaiya would survive her latest adventure, or whether her projective empathy would play a role in her survival.  Dragon Scale Lute may not be the best fantasy of the year, but it was a good read.  

Update 2/29/16: I was reviewing an ARC.  J.C. Kang has informed me that he changed Kaiya's age to sixteen as a result of feedback on the ARC. 

                                   
                                

Friday, February 19, 2016

The Memory of Water--The Girl Who Guarded a Tradition

The main reason why I picked this one up was because I thought it was original that the central character of this climate change dystopia is a female tea master.  I also admired Emmi Itäranta, the author of The Memory of Water, for writing the Finnish and English versions simultaneously.   This was especially impressive because Itäranta is a literary writer.   Few writers can write stylistically superior novels in two languages.

 In the days when I was a young participant in science fiction and fantasy fandom in the 1970's, literary science fiction and fantasy writers needed to choose their loyalties.  Were they going to be identified as literary and be studied in universities, or were they going to be identified with science fiction and be read by science fiction fans?  It seemed to me that at a certain point in her career Ursula LeGuin chose to be identified as literary.  The pace of her plots became too leisurely for me.  Eventually, I stopped reading her.  Yet her literary reputation continued to grow.

The current generation of literary science fiction and fantasy writers have found a way to please both the critics and the fans.  You can write beautiful prose and still tell a compelling story.   Emmi Itäranta is an example of this phenomenon.

                             

 
                                    
So we have a teenage heroine with an unusual profession.  I noticed that  reviewers seemed to assume that this girl from a long line of tea masters was entirely Finnish.  Yet I looked at her name, Noria Kaitio, and it seemed like it could be Japanese.   I looked up Noria and discovered that it was derived from a Spanish word for  "a device for raising water from a stream or river, consisting of a chain of pots or buckets revolving around a wheel driven by the water current."  Since the plot revolves around the scarcity of water, the choice of the protagonist's name can't be coincidental.  Oh, and I also did find that there were some Japanese Norias.  I imagined that a Japanese tea master fled the warming climate in Japan, re-settled in Finland and married a Finnish woman.  He passed on the tea ceremony to his descendants whose appearance became indistinguishable from the surrounding population in Finland over the generations.  This imagined history led me to envision the central character as the last guardian of a Japanese tradition.

Yet I wanted more detail about the practice of  the tea ceremony and more of the philosophy of tea.  There was a slight taste of it in this novel, but it wasn't really the focus of the book as I had hoped.  If this book was supposed to be about a confrontation of the tradition of tea and the military authorities, then readers should be given a better idea of what the protagonist was fighting for.  I understood that the tea ceremony as it was practiced by Noria's family was unsustainable in this harsh environment.  I think the tea ceremony was intended to be a symbol of the many human practices which had been historically valued by humanity that could not be carried on. 

Another thing I wanted from this book was more world building.  It was like a jigsaw puzzle with too many missing pieces.  There wasn't enough there for me to complete it on my own.  So far there is no indication that Itäranta intends to complete it herself in a sequel.  Her second novel appears to be an unrelated fantasy.

I did love the protagonist and her friendship with the resourceful and inventive Sanja, but the unexpected epilogue lacked conviction for me.  In the end, I saw the book as weak tea poured out over a parched landscape in a dying world.  In other words, it was a tragic waste.

                                 


Saturday, February 13, 2016

Excellent Daughters by Katherine Zoepf Falls Short of Excellence

Since my first two wins from Goodreads giveaways took place in New Zealand,  I uttered that famous Monty Python intro phrase "and now for something completely different" when I won Excellent Daughters by Katherine Zoepf from Goodreads .  This is a book consisting of a journalist's interviews with 21st century Arab women throughout the Middle East.  It had been preceded by my first Goodreads win Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All, the memoir of an American woman who married a Maori man, and my second Goodreads win, Song of the Spirits, a novel about a half-Maori woman who aspired to be a successful singer in Europe.  New Zealand is a fascinating place and I am delighted to visit it through the pages of a book, but Goodreads Giveaways was starting to become predictable.

Regarding the subject of Excellent Daughters, I'm very interested in Arab women bringing about change for themselves and for the future of women in the Middle East.  There's a book I read called Arab Women Rising about Arab women who are starting their own businesses in Arab countries.  I reviewed it on this blog here.  So as I started this book, I was ready for more good news about women in the Middle East.

                                            


Zoepf opens with a group of young Saudi women at a party in 2007 who seem very ordinary until we learn that several of them are law students.  At the time, Saudi Arabia didn't allow women to be lawyers.  The hostess of the party thought she'd be able to take a job at a law firm that didn't involve appearing in court, but others at the party were certain that they would be lawyers.  They were right, but it took a while.  In October of 2013, Saudi Arabia licensed the first woman lawyers.   Here's an article from CNN.com about the first woman lawyer in Saudi Arabia .  There were links to videos on that page about other developments in Saudi Arabia--women in Saudi Arabia now allowed to ride bicycles but only in parks accompanied by a male relative, and a city entirely of women is being constructed in Saudi Arabia to increase women's employment.    Gender segregation facilitates advances for women in a country where gender mixing is forbidden.   Perhaps there will be women's courts in the women's city presided over by woman judges with cases argued by woman lawyers.

Zoepf spoke to Saudi women who had participated in the 1990 Saudi women's driving protest to find out how it had impacted them and how they felt about it.  I found the perspective of Norah Al Sawayan most notable.  She lost her job after the protest, was placed under surveillance, was arrested for attending a mixed gender social gathering and was then beaten severely by the Saudi religious police.  She now thinks that driving would be a small victory for Saudi women while women are still under male guardianship and aren't equal before the law.  

Zoepf  didn't understand the women's campaign against male employees at lingerie shops.  She could support it as an opportunity for more jobs for women, but the argument that a woman being attended by a man at a lingerie shop was an offense to modesty seemed to her like a step backward toward traditional Islamic attitudes. Frankly, I would be uncomfortable with a male employee in those circumstances.  I also choose woman doctors.  Women having the right to make choices is the core principle of feminism.  Saudi Arabian women didn't have that right with regard to lingerie stores.  Now they do.   

It interested me to read in Excellent Daughters about woman college students in Saudi Arabia cross-dressing, exchanging photos of themselves cross-dressed via smartphones and daring each other to enter male space cross-dressed.  The cross-dressed girls buying gifts for girls who are beautiful reminded me of what I'd read about the all female Takarazuka Theatre Companies in Japan and the subculture surrounding them.  I think that like the cross-dressing actors in the Takarazuka Companies, these Saudi girls are defying conventional gender roles.  This is very daring in Saudi Arabia.  I was astonished that they were getting away with it.  

Zoepf's news about Egypt isn't good.  Suzanne Mubarak, the wife of Egypt's overthrown dictator, had become identified with feminism.  There were changes to Egypt's laws that were favorable to women under Mubarak that were called "Suzanne's laws".  Zoepf mentions them, but doesn't tell us anything specific about them.  According to this articleone of these laws dealt with a woman's right to divorce her husband without his consent.  The other dealt with a woman's ability to obtain her own passport and travel without her husband's consent.  Sadly, there is a movement to repeal these laws as being anti-Islamic.   Zoepf writes that most Egyptian women don't want anything to do with women's rights because of the association of this cause with Suzanne Mubarak.  Without Mubarak's security forces, more women are being harassed and attacked on the streets of Egypt.  As I read about Egypt after the overthrow of the Mubarak regime, I wondered about how the current situation in Egypt impacts the life of American Muslim G. Willow Wilson when she's there.  I'll add it to the list of questions I had when I reviewed her memoir here.

I don't imagine there is any good news about women in Syria right now.  There is probably very little in the way of good news about anyone in Syria.  Zoepf's reports about women in Syria date back to 2006 and are therefore very outdated. 

Since the copy I'm reviewing is an advance proof, it isn't the same as a finished copy.  The end matter which consists of acknowledgements, a bibliography and an index aren't included.   I  only know how many pages are devoted to each of them.  This may be standard in ARCs from major publishers.   Every non-fiction ARC that I've received from indie presses or small academic presses has always had acknowledgements and a bibliography though none have had indexes.  Well, I can't review what isn't there.   I have sometimes given a book an extra star on Goodreads for its bibliography.  That won't be happening with this book.

Excellent Daughters was intermittently interesting, but there were times when I thought Zoepf's comments weren't insightful.  I don't regret reading the book because I did learn some important things--particularly about the status of women in Saudi Arabia.  I imagine that Zoepf  probably wasn't willing to plunge into the midst of the current maelstrom in Syria.   I know that if the women she spoke to in Syria in 2006 are still alive, they are probably refugees.   She might conceivably catch up to one or two of them wherever they've taken refuge if she could find them.  I wonder if the finished version of the book  has any sort of postscript dealing with what happened to those women, or perhaps the release of Excellent Daughters will cause a few of her Syrian interviewees to get in touch with her.

                                   







                               

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Daughter of Destiny: The Evolution of Guinevere From Mean Girl To Queen

This is a post that I copied from Book Babe because I had a few more things to say about the book that I think will interest my readers. 

 Some would say that we don't need another Arthurian novel.  I'm not one of those people.  I believe that the Matter of Britain, which is what the Arthurian myths are called by those who are centrally concerned with them, needs to get retold in every generation.   I'm also still holding out for my ideal Arthurian novel.  The Mists of Avalon wasn't it.  I was more interested in Marion Zimmer Bradley's portrayal of the relationship between Arthur and Lancelot than any of the women.  More recently there was Gwenhwyfar  by Mercedes Lackey.   That version of Guinevere as a warrior was a good deal closer to my ideal than anything else I'd seen.   She was almost what I was looking for.   I could see why Arthur (who was a warrior king) would feel a common bond with that Guinevere and would be impressed with her.   She was strong and capable. She also despised court intrigue as much as I do.  Yet I wanted a Guinevere who could be a convincing and authentic priestess as well as a warrior.   I thought that Daughter of Destiny by Nicole Evalina would give me the Guinevere that I was looking for.  I  received a free copy from the author in return for this honest review.

                                       


I was delighted that Guinevere was sent to Avalon to be trained as a priestess in this version.  I also really liked Evalina's idea that the priestesses of Avalon refer to the God and the Goddess because Avalon was culturally diverse and they wanted to avoid conflict over whose deities were superior. This means that Avalon was henotheist.   Henotheism is the belief that there are many deities, but this particular one is the one I worship. It seems to me that most ancient religions were henotheist.  I think the Neo-Pagans who use the God and the Goddess currently really do believe that there is only one of each.

 When Guinevere arrived on Avalon at eleven years old, she was clearly too young to appreciate the lessons she was learning or the importance of her psychic gift.  I can understand that she couldn't be an inspiring figure at that age, but I didn't expect her to manifest as the most hideous female adolescent trope in YA fiction.  This was a character limned with acid.  She was the Mean Girl incarnate-- obsessed with minor slights and plots of petty vengeance.   Instead of befriending the other priestesses in training, she was boiling over with envy of any girl who seemed to be powerful or favored by the senior priestesses.  Ugh!  I found her completely despicable.   She was the opposite of sympathetic for me.

Then tragedy struck and Guinevere seemed to be on the road toward maturation.  At a couple of points, I thought she was in danger of a Mean Girl relapse but that didn't seem to be happening.  It helped that she was faced with an adult version of the Mean Girl on a daily basis.  Guinevere definitely didn't aspire to be just like her. That's a good thing because the Queen of Britain should be building alliances rather than making new enemies.   Unfortunately, royal courts tend to be seething cauldrons of rivalries.   Can this Guinevere rise above all the spitefulness when she wears a crown?  I hope she can.   But the truth is that I didn't sign on for this sort of Guinevere.   I wanted her to be so much better than MZB's Guinevere in The Mists of Avalon, and so far I'm not certain she can measure up to my expectations.

I have to confess that I'm more interested in the future of  Isolde than I am in Guinevere.   She's no saint, but she's adventurous, resourceful and is generous towards those that she considers friends.  I'm wondering about how someone as resilient and pragmatic as Isolde gets caught up in such a tragic story as the one she's credited with in Arthurian myth.  Well, since Evalina starts with the premise that Arthurian myth got it wrong, I'll be rooting for Isolde to overcome future adversity.

There's a method of divination using a game similar to chess in this book.  Evalina says that she invented it.  Well, I plugged "chess divination" into my search engine and got an interesting surprise. The first result was Thoughts on the Origins of Chess by Joseph Needham , who was a British scholar on ancient China.   Needham wrote in this essay that what we know as chess began as a system of divination in China using heavenly bodies such as the sun, moon and planets as pieces, and that it became a battle game when it moved to India.   The purpose of the divination was to discover whether the forces of yin and yang were in balance.   Those who study Chinese spirituality know that the entire cosmos is inharmonious if yin and yang aren't balanced.  I find it absolutely fascinating that chess really was originally used for divination.