You’re once again tuned in to the Savage Reviews Channel. I am your host, Cantatrice McSavage. Up on today’s agenda:
The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud
Circe by Madeline Miller.
All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
The first two reviews are spoiler-free. The third one isn’t.
The Amulet of Samarkand
In a non-savage interlude, this is pretty good. It’s aimed at kids in that awkward 10-13 age group. The writing reminds me a bit of the Artemis Fowl series: a morally ambiguous pubescent boy with more talent than he knows what to do with, sets out to do some interesting but reckless things. The other main character, Bartemeus, is a demon forced into an odd and ambivalent team with this kid. Shenanigans follow. It’s not great literature. But it knows what it’s doing and it does it well: the pacing is good, the action is consistently interesting and the characters are relatable and realistically flawed. The joy of having a morally ambiguous (read: wannabe villain) in these stories is that you then don’t have to explain where the adults went and why they’re not paying closer attention to what their kid is doing, because the kid has a clear motive to conceal it from them. It keeps moving, which is important for keeping the attention of a younger crowd. And vitally: it is the kind of book that helps to keep kids reading in that awkward space between primary school and adulthood, where there’s every reason to fall away from books. I don’t remember there being so many good books of this kind when I was that age. It didn’t really matter to me, because I found Dragonlance and God knows there were a lot of those stories. This one gets my seal of approval. My one complaint is that all the characters who have any real agency in this book are male. The women who do show up in the book are weak background characters who generally just follow what the men are doing. But it’s the first in a substantial series and I get the impression that this is going to change as it moves on.
Mythic retellings are in. Hella in. More in than you know. I blame Loki. This trend started off Norsey, but since Joanne Harris, Neil Gaiman AND Stephen Fry have all published smash hit Norse retellings in the last few years, I think additional Norse is probably a hard sell at this point. But no matter. There are all sorts of other myths to glomp, and the Greeks are next up on the menu. There have been a few novels about Greek gods in the last decade or so. The ones that immediately spring to mind are Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips and Zeus is Dead! by Michael G. Munz. But those transplanted the ancient gods into the modern world – this is actually a pretty good premise because those guys were totally bonkers so you more or less have instant plot just by putting them in a scene and watching the adventures unfold.
But we’re now going for straightforward retellings of the original myths. Among the writers and agents and publishers currently harvesting every god they can find sitting still for too long, we have this latest book from Madeline Miller. The reviewers have gone bonkers about it and it reached the point where I felt like it’d be easier to read it than to justify why I hadn’t.
But mythic retellings are like seafood risotto to me.* I look at them and think “oh that sounds nice! That sounds like exactly the kind of thing I could really go for right now.” And then I order them, they arrive and I remember that I don’t enjoy them as much as I always think I do. **
OK so. Madeline Miller. She’s not a bad writer. Good characters, good dialogue, complex motivations and all that jam. She brings these old stories to life and puts the reader in the scene. I’m curious as to which bits of the book are in the original sources and which bits are Miller embellishments. I don’t really know much about the Greek myths other than the stuff that everyone knows. But… (you knew that was coming, didn’t you…)
Look, I can see why people love her. As I say, I don’t think she’s a bad writer. It’s just… we have to talk about the similes. Oh God. So many similes. Personally I’m not all that big a fan of similes. They’re not banned from my writing, but I try to verbalise them sparingly, or they become as dangerous as adverbs and stupid words for “said.”*** I have a practical approach to language, and if a simile doesn’t make something easier to understand properly, I prefer to leave it out. Every now and then, a simile will perfectly encapsulate what an adjective alone cannot, and that is when the author is allowed to high-five themselves, eat an entire cake and go for a nap. The rest of the time, it’s either cliched and obvious (the blood flowed freely, like dark red wine from a shattered bottle) or trying too hard in a way that just makes you go “huh?” (the blood spurted from the wound like jizz from a horny but vengeful manticore.)
It seems really petty to pick on Miller’s use of similes. It’s her personal narrative voice; it’s something that many people probably love about her writing; it fits the type of story. But what you have to remember is that I am petty. And this book is so saturated with similes, I think you could create about half the sentences using this formula:
His / her / the
Face / eyes / voice / expression / hands / body / sword / bigass ship / group of unruly-looking sailors / penis
Was / were like [a] [the]
Ancient / new / cold / hot / shining / stormy / calm / burning / burnished / broken / clear / silent / soaring / hard / brittle / strong / bright / dark / broken / tumescent
Sea / island / tree / sky / stars / sun / waves / earth / bronze / brass / gold / silver / glass / rain / birds / penis
[optional] in the morning / at night / at sea / in the calm waters around my island / before a storm / during a storm / after a storm / in the sun / in the rain / on a penis
And then if you feel you haven’t quite bludgeoned your reader with your DESCRIPTIVE SKILLS you can put in the next sentence as follows:
It was [obvious adjective] and [obvious adjective].
Every action, conversation, person, place, emotion and penis are described in this way. Once you notice it (and I noticed it about ten minutes in) you see it every time it happens. Although there may not be as many penises in this book as I have just implied.
I know I’m being unfair. What Miller has done is actually quite a feat: she’s drawn together a whole lot of disparate stories into a coherent narrative with a single character in the centre. Because that character is immortal, other characters come and go. That could make the central narrative feel fragmented, but it doesn’t. There’s always just enough conflict and tension to keep you going, and it isn’t a short book. I’m just a big meanie. I have fussy tastes and I know what I like. No, wait. I don’t.
All the Birds in the Sky
This is a story about Patricia and Laurence, who grow up in the same area and go to the same school, where they are thrown into a slightly crap friendship because they’re both social outcasts. She has some kind of natural witchy talent, and he’s a nerdy genius scientist person. They go their separate ways when they manage to defeat the odds and go to their specialist witchy/sciencey schools. Then they meet up again, coincidentally, as adults, when the apocalypse is looming and their aims are somewhat at odds with each other.
One of the most frustrating things for me is picking up a book, reading the first few chapters, believing I know what the book is and what it’s trying to do, and then being abruptly corrected. I don’t mean in a fun way, like having an unpredictable plot or cool stylistic twist. I mean in a “this has abruptly become a book I wouldn’t have bought” way. I think this is possibly the worst example of this I’ve found. Often this happens with debuts, where the aspiring writer has had it ground in that THE BEGINNING IS THE MOST IMPORTANT PART BECAUSE IT HAS TO BE PERFECT AND WRENCH THE READER’S ATTENTION CLEAN OUT OF THEIR FRONTAL CORTEX, SPILLING NEURONS EVERYWHERE, OR NO AGENT WILL SIGN YOU AND YOU WILL DIE ALONE, UNPUBLISHED AND UNLOVED. Anders has been a writer of various stripes for many years, I believe, but this is her first novel. She has the credentials to have worried less about finding an agent though.
The first few chapters, where they are children, is fun and whimsical. There are some laugh-out-loud funny lines. I was charmed by the moment where the two protagonists are making up random stuff about passers-by, based on their shoes, and accidentally identify an assassin working for a nameless order. Sweet, funny, clever. We’ve got talking animals, an evil big sister, and wry humour aplenty. Really comes across as more like the same kind of book as The Amulet of Samarkand at this point. I really liked this. I’d even started recommending it.
Part 1 is charming like this. Part 2 jumps forward a few years to further on in their schooling, up until they get to their specialist schools. The tone is darker but reasonably constant. Then at about a third of the way through, we hit part 3, which is a full-on screeching breaks, veering into a ditch, dying, travelling through the underworld, and returning as a zombie level of tone change. The hell?
But then I found this in one of her answers on her goodreads profile:
The idea for the book came to me when I was in the middle of trying to write another book, an urban fantasy. I had this idea for a book about a witch and a mad scientist.
At first I thought it would just be a zany comedy where they were enemies or rivals. It would be just lots of battles between magic and science. But then I started to think of it as more of a relationship story and I tried to develop the characters more and turn them into real people.
Yes. Yes, she is telling the truth here. I know this because this is exactly how the book comes across, and also why I didn’t like it. There’s nothing wrong with changing your mind about what kind of book you’re writing, but could she not have edited in some kind of consistency? If she decided that the story of parts 3 and 4 was what she really wanted to write, she should have cut out 1 and 2 and started the story at the beginning of 3, rather than leaving in this awful jarring shift.
When we rejoin our two heroes, they’ve become angsty adult hipsters in San Francisco. The world is going to shit with climate change and possible extinction looms. He’s working on some plan to get at least some humans to a new planet with THE SCIENCE. How he intends to do this is vague but involves conjouring up a wormhole. She’s trying to save the existing planet, and also carry out vigilante murders of bad people. She seems to be a member of some kind of secret order but it’s never fully explored. The magic system is shit (or at least insufficiently explored to be good). The assassination stuff COULD have been cool as hell, but no.
The worldbuilding is bad. Very, very bad. The only worldbuilding that is really done is this absurd hipster San Francisco. Sure, that’s the setting, but that’s not all there is to worldbuilding. The SCIENCE! And MAGIC! are woefully underdeveloped. Mr Rose, the terrifying antagonist of the first two parts, absolutely could have been the book’s Javert. But instead he’s brought back and vanquished instantly. This reinforces the impression that these are two separate books. It’s like he was brought back because Anders suddenly realised she’d have a big plot hole if she didn’t do anything about him. The book is no longer funny. And although they’re continuing with their paths with the magic and the science stuff, the author doesn’t really seem to give a shit about it anymore. They theoretically have goals (see above) which are staggeringly important. You would never know it from their actions, or lack thereof. All they do is wander around failing to take meaningful action, while being angsty and unfulfilled and screwing up their relationships. And accidentally running into each other when they intended not to.
Even the attempts to describe the magical lot, which are obviously supposed to come across as whimsical and enchanting in that magical realism way, just make them sound like pretentious wankers because of the context. Here’s where Laurence meets them.
Ermesto hadn’t been out in the sun for decades, but his skin was still a warm brown, and his long, high-cheekboned face had deep wrinkles. His gray hair was in a single braid, and he wore eyeliner or kohl around his eyes. He was wearing a crimson smoking jacket and silky blue pajama pants, so his outfit looked quasi-Hefnerian. He greeted Laurence without rising from his chaise…
A short older lady with wide glasses on a string, and black-and-white hair in an elaborate bun, started telling Laurence about the time her shoe had fallen in love with a sock that was much too big… A young person of indeterminate gender, with short spiky brown hair and a gray hoodie, wanted to know who Laurence’s favourite superhero was. Ernesto kept quoting the poetry of Daisy Zamora.
But anyway, he’s met them now! In a bookshop that is actually called DANGER (for… fuck’s… sake). Time to talk about some important stuff! End of the world coming! Science! Magic! But no. Their first conversation is about food. Should they go and check out “that new hipster tapas place?” WHAT THE HELL ARE THESE PEOPLE GOING TO DO ABOUT THEIR DINNER? I KNOW YOU’RE ON THE EDGE OF YOUR SEAT HERE. I’LL TELL YOU.
Somehow they managed to catch the Korean taco truck driving from one location to another, and bought a dozen spicy bulgogi and barbecue tofu tacos while it was stopped at a red light. Laurence’s taco had a lot of cilantro and onions, the way he secretly liked it.
YES. WE HAVE FOUND OUR WAY INTO LAURENCE’S SECRET WORLD. SUCH HIDDEN DEPTHS.
Let’s talk for a moment about this nonbinary character. I say they’re nonbinary, but all that actually comes up is that Laurence can’t figure out their gender and it’s never disclosed, so they might actually not be. Taylor is supposed to be one of Patricia’s best friends, but has perhaps two lines of dialogue and is so peripheral that Anders doesn’t even need to bring out any pronouns. I think Taylor was included because Anders thought that they were just the kind of person Patricia might have as a friend. And that is how you don’t do representation. Speaking of which, there’s a gratuitous sapphic kiss between Patricia and another very minor character, for whom she’s just developed feelings out of nowhere. It doesn’t turn into anything meaningful though.
And then Patricia and Laurence, with no build up and no apparent chemistry, decide that they’re in love. Again, out of nowhere, for no apparent reason other than Anders thought it would make the plot more compelling (I assume). It doesn’t.
I know this book has been well-received. I wanted to love it. But it’s such a damn mess. Anders is obviously not an idiot, and she can write beautifully at times. This book won some prestigious awards. I have to ask: what in the world did people see here that I didn’t?
*An example of a BLOODY FANTASTIC simile.
**The seafood risotto thing became a recurrent argument with one of my exes. We used to go to Italian restaurants a lot and I’d order seafood risotto. It would arrive, I would remember that although I like rice I can’t bear the texture of risotto rice, and she would roll her eyes and swap with me. Thinking back, I’m pretty sure that she must have been ordering things that I like deliberately, because I am an extremely fussy eater. After this happened a couple of times she would cut in as soon as I looked at the menu. “You’re going to order seafood risotto, aren’t you.” Affirmative. “You don’t like it! You do not like seafood risotto! Why do you always do this?” And I would actually argue with her. Thinking back: I’m absolutely rubbish at dating. Being in your own world all the time can be a problem in this area. I once lost a bet with her about which pub we were sitting in at the time.
***You felt clever noticing that, didn’t you. Well done.