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metaphortunate son ([personal profile] metaphortunate) wrote2017-06-26 10:42 pm
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two books, neither alike in dignity

It's book talking time!

Coincidentally, I have recently read two separate books about French spy-courtesans in the 1920s 19th century. One was Alexander Chee's The Queen of the Night. The other - well, I call it a book, but it is an incomplete series, by Jo Graham, beginning with The General's Mistress and continuing in The Emperor's Agent and The Marshal's Lover.

Alexander Chee, award-winning author, is interviewed about TQOTN in Vogue and reviewed in the New York Times. Jo Graham is interviewed about her books in Amazing Stories and reviewed on, well, Goodreads. There is a great difference in the height at which your brow is meant to sit while reading these books.

Which just goes to show why you shouldn't judge a book by its cover.

The Queen of the Night is rapey-er than Game of Thrones, and you will not collect that from reading any of those interviews or reviews, but holy shit, it's grim and unrelenting. There is a lot of sex in this book - never let anyone tell you that Serious Authors don't write sex. What Serious Authors don't write is enjoyable sex, because that has the filthy female whiff of romance about it, and Chee will have nothing to do with that trap: enjoy 561 pages of bleak fucking, at best survival sex, at worst violent rape. But it's described like opera! So, you know: it's Art.

Whereas if on the other hand you like slumming, you could read a page-turner of a picaresque sex-and-war-and mysticism perspective on the Napoleonic Wars that is super, super interesting for someone who has tended to read about it from the English perspective! It reminds me very much of that Roger Ebert quote that's been floating around Twitter:
There's a learning process that moviegoers go through. They begin in childhood without sophistication or much taste, and for example, like "Gamera'' more than "Air Force One" because flying turtles are obviously more entertaining than United States presidents. Then they grow older and develop "taste,'' and prefer "Air Force One," which is better made and has big stars and a more plausible plot. (Isn't it more believable, after all, that a president could single-handedly wipe out a planeload of terrorists than that a giant turtle could spit gobs of flame?) Then, if they continue to grow older and wiser, they complete the circle and return to "Gamera'' again, realizing that while both movies are preposterous, the turtle movie has the charm of utter goofiness--and, in an age of flawless special effects, it is somehow more fun to watch flawed ones.
Both books are preposterous. But Jo Graham's books are cheerfully preposterous, with love at first sight being based on mystical reincarnation through the ages and a vow between Cleopatra's handmaidens or some such thing; and Alexander Chee's characters blankly drift through the ludicrous motions of a musicless opera plot because, as The Worst Bestsellers likes to say about characters in books like these, they are lizard people. Human motivations and actions are foreign to them! They hatched from eggs and now they are wearing human skin suits and that's why the author acts like their entirely, artificially plot-motivated behavior is normal and requires no explanation. It is normal, for lizards!

Whereas Jo Graham's books involve people having difficult but ultimately productive conversations about ambition and infidelity and polyamory - they don't have that vocabulary, but the ideas are definitely there - and people who aren't entirely good or bad, and an enby protagonist, and conflicted feelings about children, and the fear of aging and death, and politics that are rooted in the deep personal urge for freedom, and yes - magic, and sex, and fun! I got the third one as part of a StoryBundle, which was annoying as it spoiled the first two, obviously! But the moment I finished it I bought the other two anyway. Spoilers don't matter that much - they're not mystery novels, if you're writing about the Napoleonic Wars the interest of your story had better not depend on the reader not knowing how things turn out. The Queen of the Night I got from the library, and I tried to finish it, I really did. It just wasn't giving me anything to work with. It is the kind of book where spoilers matter - my loan of it ran out before I made it to the end, and I placed a hold on it to check it out again just because I did, honestly, want to know the answer to the mystery. But when my hold on it came due, I admitted that I did not want to know enough to drag myself through to the end of a very, very, very boring book, and I never checked it out the second time.

And, incidentally, between the grim, boring, rapey book, and the picaresque, sexy, fun book? The fun book is the one that's based on a real historical person. Maria Versfelt was a Dutch adventure star, as she is delightfully described in that Dutch website (thanks Google Translate), and her published memoirs are the basis for Graham's books. I think the reincarnation thing is invention, though.

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