Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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I was SO not in the moon to write this weekend. No particular reason, just one of those things. Eventually I will push through the first half of this chapter and then I have a previously-cut scene to plug in and can get on, and then everything will be fine. In the meantime, I must admit I kinda made inroads on my TBR pile instead of working.

And I wish I’d enjoyed it more.

First! Bookending this little dive into my TBR pile were a couple of books I really enjoyed! So let me start with those:

ALMOST PERFECT by Brian Katcher was in fact almost perfect. In fact, I’m having a hard time thinking of anything about it that WASN’T perfect! It’s a contemporary YA, not a category I’m much interested in, but in fact the author handed me a copy of this book last year at a convention, and I just got around to reading it, and, well, it’s really really good.

The writing is excellent. I even liked the prologue, and I hate prologues! The dialogue is excellent. There are some HILARIOUS scenes that are just brilliant, I’m thinking of the bit with the McDonald’s toys; if you’ve read it you know what I mean! There were several lines that made me laugh out loud (really!).

The characterization is really excellent, not just the main characters but right down the line to the secondary and even the minor characters.

The plot? Well, here’s what School Library Journal says:

“A small-town Missouri boy’s world is rocked when he falls for the new girl at school, and she eventually confesses that she is a biological male. . . A remarkably “clean” book dealing with sexuality and identity, this is neither preachy nor didactic . . .”

And there you go! I know, can you believe a book with this kind of subject wouldn’t come across as preachy? But it really doesn’t. That’s how well-written it is.

And then last night? When I didn’t want to actually work on anything, I read Sharon Shinn’s book GATEWAY. It’s a minor work, in my opinion, but it is of course well written (I mean, it IS Shinn) and nicely put together. And I read it because I really, really wanted a book I would enjoy. Because in between, I tried a mystery I didn’t like (too many characters were really just unpleasant people and I got tired of it). I quit about a third of the way through. And then I tried SILVER PHOENIX by Pon, and I wanted to really like it, and I did actually enjoy some of the details, but the characters seemed so simplistic to me, and the plot seemed very episodic rather than flowing from front to back, and the writing was okay but (to me) not outstanding, and I wound up being kinda disappointed.

And then I read this one:

Shadow Ops: Control Point by Myke Cole.

Okay, I am not normally inclined to review books unless I like them. I mean, I don’t much care for negative reviews myself, right? And I hate to make someone else feel bad. And what if I run into the author at a convention sometime? Awkward much?

But there are limits, and this book ticked me off because of its wasted potential. Nothing wrong with the concept or the world, but . . .
Well, suppose you read the following first paragraphs of a novel:

The monitor showed a silent video feed from a high school security camera. On it, a young boy stood in a school auditorium. A long-sleeved black T-shirt covered his skinny chest. Silver chains connected rings in his ears, nose, and lips. His hair was a spray of mousse and color.

He was wreathed in a bright ball of fire.

Billowing smoke clouded the camera feed, but Britton could see the boy stretch out a hand, flames jetting past the camera’s range, engulfing fleeing students, who rolled away, beating at their hair and clothing. People were running, screaming.

Beside the boy stood a chubby girl, her dyed-black hair matching her lipstick and eye makeup. She spread her arms.

The flames around the boy pulsed in time with her motions, forming two man-sized peaks of flame. The fire elementals danced among the students, burning as they went. Britton watched as the elementals multiplied – four, then six. Wires sparked as the fire reached the stage. The girl’s magic touched them as well, the electricity forming dancing human shapes, elementals of sizzling energy. They lit among the students, fingertips crackling arcs of dazzling blue lightning.

Okay, your reaction is:

a) Those poor kids are just scared and confused, that’s why they’re burning their classmates alive.

b) My God, a magical Columbine – someone needs to take out those little sociopaths, quick before the body count hits triple digits!

Would it surprise you to know that the protagonist goes for option “a”?

They want me to kill a child, Lieutenant Oscar Britton thought.

And from the rest of the chapter and, indeed, the book, it’s perfectly clear the author, Myke Cole, also goes for “a”, and expects the reader to as well. So right from the beginning, Cole loses me – I’m having a problem with suspension of disbelief. I am totally out of sympathy with the protagonist, because are you kidding me?

And this problem with implausibly weird reactions go straight through the book from beginning to end.

Like, suppose you want to get somebody who’s manifested a forbidden magical talent to surrender to you so that you can train him to use his talent in a secret war. You know that it’s widely believed that people who manifest talents like this are taken away and killed, but this is actually not true. So, when you have tracked down this guy with his extremely valuable (if forbidden) talent, and he says, “You’re going to kill me anyway,” you respond:

a) “That’s for a court-martial to decide. Get on your knees and put your hands behind your head.”

b) “Oscar, I know that’s what everybody believes, but I swear to you, it’s not true. You’ve already accidentally killed people; you know you’re too dangerous to be out on your own. The truth is, you just need to switch from the regular army to, well, let’s say special forces. You can learn to control your talent. Just settle down and we’ll get you out of this mess, I promise you.”

You’d think “b”, right? Nope, the government guy in charge of bringing Oscar in goes straight for “a”, which results in Oscar running and various assorted mayhem before he’s finally caught.

Not only that, but even though Oscar’s longing for a place to belong and a sense that he’s doing something worthwhile? Every single authority figure goes out of his way to make it clear that to them and to the supernatural branch of the army, Oscar’s just a slave and a tool. Why do all the officers treat their people like this? Even though it is clearly not very practical if what you want is willing, dedicated people working for you? Ummm . . . because they’re nuts?

Also! Can we have characters with layers? Complicated motivations? No, we cannot. The guys who seem like they might be rough around the edges but maybe they have a heart of gold? Nope, they’re just straight-up bad guys. You want to be a good guy? You’re just nice right from the first moment you walk on stage. And also stupid! Spoiler here, so stop here if you care about that:

Honest to God, my dog, with a brain the size of a walnut, could tell that letting the creepy scary evil Scylla loose would be a really bad idea. Like, a really really bad idea. But it never crosses Oscar’s mind that she might possibly slaughter people like cattle, even though, hello, she said she thought of normal people like animals. And he let her loose anyway? Good Lord above, what a shock that things didn’t work out! Oscar is just so STUPID. And vacillating. Like, decide what you want already! And then STICK TO IT!

This book picked up a couple of amazing blurbs, like “Hands down, the best military fantasy I’ve ever read,” and I can only say, seriously? Or is this the only military fantasy you’ve ever read? SHADOW OPS takes place in an technologically advanced alternate contemporary world, and that may make it unique among military fantasies. Can anybody think of any other fantasies which combine attack helicopters and magic and could fall into the same category of military fantasy as Cole’s book?

Because if not, if this is the best military fantasy out there, then I suggest sticking to military SF and heading straight to Tanya Huff’s VALOR series, which, I am not kidding you, is just infinitely better.

So, you can see why after that I went for an author I knew and trusted, like Shinn. This is the second time this year I’ve been seriously disappointed by a book I got from the SFBC on the basis of their description, and you know what? I think I’ll be sticking to books recommended by actual people for a while. Like people who comment here!

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5 Comments Recent Reading

  1. Mary Beth

    Glad to see I’m not the only one disappointed by SILVER PHOENIX–I thought there was a lot of potential, and I LOVED that the main character was a girl who was unashamedly in love with food, but the writing felt clunky and I never really connected with any of the characters–too often I was yelling at them for being stupid, when I would much rather have been impressed by their cleverness.

    On the other hand, I got off work early today and so stopped by the library on my way home, and finally picked up Sharon Shinn’s MANY WATERS on (I think) your recommendation. (I’ve been looking for Whitcomb’s A CERTAIN SLANT OF LIGHT, but still haven’t found it.) I also got all the Earthsea books, because somehow I haven’t read them since I was about thirteen, a couple of McKillips I haven’t read or don’t remember (THE BELL AT SEALEY HEAD, THE TOWER AT STONY WOOD, and the sci-fi FOOL’S RUN), and a couple sci-fi for kicks.

    First, though, I’ve got to work on my review of HOUSE OF SHADOWS. Read it this weekend, and LOVED it. I could have done with another 100 pages on keiso life and Kalchesne politics and magic, but I was blissfully satisfied with everything I got. Your writing was breathtakingly gorgeous, as always. And I really, really loved Leilis–her bitterness mingled with compassion really made her the stand-out character of the book for me.

  2. Rachel

    I’m glad you would have liked 100 more pages! I think that’s good news! And I’m glad you liked Leilis. So far I guess that makes one vote for Leilis and one for Nemienne and one for Taudde (mine, actually). I wonder who will shake out as the favorite, if anyone?

    Okay, for me? STONY WOOD was definitely the one I liked least of those three. I loved BELL. I haven’t read FOOL’S RUN for a long time, but it’s lovely, just what you’d expect a McKillip SF to be.

    You MUST find a copy of the Whitcomb! Well, you can look forward to finding it eventually, though, and the anticipation is good, too, right? And I hope you love TROUBLED WATERS — for me it was a very comfortable, relaxing book. I mean that in a good way!

    And, yes, I think I just have very low tolerance for stupid characters. Plus the main character in SILVER PHOENIX seemed to just be special for no reason? Like, she was just declared to be special? To me she didn’t seem special at all. I was more interested in the half-Han boy, but then to me none of the characters actually got developed. Oh, well!

  3. Mary Beth

    I loved Taudde — I have a suspicion that next time I read he’ll be joining the list of my fictional crushes — but it was Leilis who really struck me on my first read. Her strength and her composure, her intelligence, her compassion even when she didn’t particularly want to care. She seemed very much like the type of person I’d like to be friends with, and there aren’t many fictional characters who make THAT cut!

    Though now that I’m thinking about it, I have a question. I adore your characters’ names and generally I can figure out how to pronounce them, but I can’t decide if Taudde’s name is pronounced in a vaguely Welsh fashion, with the ‘dd’ sort of a ‘v’ sound, or if it’s just meant to be a hard ‘d’, or if the d goes with both syllables (“Taud-de”?). What’s your preference?

    I read TROUBLED WATERS this morning and loved it. Comforting and relaxing are excellent descriptions–actually I kept tensing up expecting bad things to happen to people I loved, and was pleasantly surprised when they didn’t. It was fantastic to read a book where most people genuinely ARE nice (though I found the ones who weren’t very believable), and especially where a heroine can enjoy food and fashion without any sense that she’s being frivolous. It was a very feminine book, I thought, and very, very refreshing. I recall reading one of the Angel books before and not being terribly impressed, but I’ll have to keep my eyes out for more Shinn books!

    Your comments on specialness in SILVER PHOENIX remind me of something else I liked about TROUBLED WATERS, hah. Zoe actually took pains to point out that as special as she was, she wasn’t the only one–the other primes likely had the same sensory gifts she did, and they were certainly as dangerous as she could be, and that if her grandmother hadn’t displayed the same powers Zoe did, it was because her grandmother was more careful and controlled and responsible about her usage of them. Which I appreciate! I read a lot of “Specialer than everyone else” stories as a teenager (Oh, Mercedes Lackey…), and I got kind of sick of them.

  4. Rachel

    I never mind if other people pronounce the names in a different way than I do, but for me all the terminal “e’s” are silent in this particular book. So it’s pretty close to “Tawd” and “Nem-ee-en” and “Lee-liss”. But if you like a different pronunciation better, hey, don’t let me interfere!

    When I read TROUBLED WATERS, I really sort of felt that nothing too bad was going to happen and that made me happy. I was so in the mood for a book where most people would be nice and nothing too bad would happen! And then at the end even that little princess was glad to be rescued, remember? And I’d been worried she was too young and wouldn’t understand what had really been going on and there would be all this unpleasantness, so I was happy it worked out more smoothly.

    I liked the first several Angel books much better than the latter couple. But for Sharon Shinn? I suggest you keep an eye out for A TRUTHTELLER’S TALE and the other ones in that YA series rather than looking for the Angel books.

    And yes, I’m definitely tired of the “Specialer than thou” thing. Someday I will write a story where there is this prophecy and a kid who is clearly meant to fulfill it, only the prophecy is just wrong and the kid is actually ordinary.

    Frankly, I like the idea that ordinary non-special people can achieve great things a whole lot better than the idea that you have to be born special in order to achieve great things.

  5. Elaine T

    I love FOOL’S RUN, it haunted me and was my McKillip reread of choice for a long time. Not so much any more but I’m still very fond of it. She did music without the bard crap. (Not that she can’t handle the bard crap well, it’s just nice to see someone in the genre using music without that crutch.)

    It eventually struck me that the story bears a strong resemblence to Orpheus.

    Second the recommendation for the Shinn YA’s that start with TRUTH-TELLER’S TALE. I prefer them to her officially adult stuff, mostly, although I do enjoy TROUBLED WATERS. I enjoy everything I’ve read by her, but not everything has made the ‘buy & keep this” cut. None of the Angel/Samaria books have.

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