Blade Singer, by Aaron de Orive and Martha Wells

This isn’t Murderbot.

It’s really not fair to compare the two. But because I found this book by looking for other things involving Martha Wells—that felt like Murderbot—I’m afraid it’s doomed to comparison. This was the available book, with Martha Wells’ name attached. It wasn’t what I was looking for.

I did finish it.

Blade Singer isn’t Murderbot. It’s straightforward portal fiction, with a powerful fey three musketeers vibe. All genres I like. Clearly intended for that awkward threshold between middle grade and young adult, where the plot is very middle grade but the writing is a tad more complex, Blade Singer has a mix of genres (and a target audience marketing category) that I have strong opinions about.

Honestly, this book is fine. I enjoyed it. My quibbles with it are perhaps unreasonable.

Leaving aside my desire for more Murderbot, I think this is actually a solid book to give to a younger reader who enjoys fantasy, fey and faeries, swashbuckling and musketeers, or portal fiction. And it’s a solid choice for any younger reader who might like those things and hasn’t gotten deep into books yet. It isn’t as immediately accessible as other simpler reads (it’s no Warrior Cats), but it’s not especially difficult either. On that front, it lands the upper middle grade rating pretty solidly.

However… as someone who’s quite familiar with (and enjoys) all the genres involved, this book also doesn’t offer any big surprises or new takes. It isn’t transforming the genres, or at least not in a way that offers a story more complex and nuanced and to my taste. It doesn’t succeed where other ostensibly-for-children fiction has thrived, with the depth required for cross age-market appeal (think She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, most Pixar movies, or Nnedi Okorafor’s middle grade work like Akata Witch or Shadow Speaker).

Blade Singer’s stumbling blocks for me, I think, were its moral and emotional plots. They were present, all the requisite structure was there, but they felt almost bland. Like I could see the action on the page, and I knew how it would or should play out, but I never felt pulled into it, into feeling it. And I know this book could have done that. All the puzzle pieces were there.

Part of that could have been the close over-the-shoulder third person narration, but I know other close third stories have succeeded for me where this book didn’t. And while adding more filigrees to the moral and emotional plots might have helped make them less straightforward, I don’t think that would have solved the issue for me—I don’t feel pulled in just because something’s complex, I enjoy something being complex when I’ve already been pulled in. I think it came down to something about the characterization, and the fact that I simply bounced off of fully connecting with the narrator, Manny.

Your mileage may vary.

But that emotional bounce, and having a solid physical plot while struggling with the emotional and moral plot, reminds me of my own experience first writing fiction. With most of my preceding storytelling experience coming from running RPGs, I struggled to make stories with emotional connection or character depth. I’ve written about all that on this blog before.

And maybe I’m reading too closely here, but I think Aaron de Orive had a similar starting point (both in terms of games and the fiction he consumed). He’s involved in writing for RPGs and video games, and the authors he mentions on his personal site aren’t known for their excellent depictions of relatable complex emotional people, not like the modern authors I’d compare them to. Many are the same authors I read as a kid.

For me at least, writing linear fiction was a puzzle that I didn’t even realize I wasn’t solving. Most adventure fiction I’d read as a kid didn’t have much emotional depth or nuance. And while I knew how to elicit reactions from my players, that was all about setting up the stage with the right plot pieces and then letting them complete all the robust internal character struggle in their own heads. I didn’t know how to show that on the page. Sometimes, I still don’t.

But I wanted Aaron de Orive (and Martha Wells, she’s credited as a co-author even though this doesn’t feel anything like her other work I’ve read so far) to yank on my heartstrings. I wanted these authors to reel me in deep and leave me really feeling the joys and sorrows of the characters involved. That didn’t happen. And I didn’t feel attached enough (as I did with Murderbot) to complete the loop myself.

But as I said above, my quibbles are probably unreasonable. Blade Singer has more emotional depth than those adventure stories I read as a kid. It’s not a bad book! It’s perfectly fine, and I do recommend it to anyone who likes the relevant genres. And, to really enjoy it, I think you’re best off reading it as a kid who doesn’t have as much experience with these stories.

All Systems Red & Artificial Condition, by Martha Wells

I love Murderbot.

I’m late to the game, I know. But if there’s any upside, it’s that there are already a bunch of Murderbot stories for me to read. I don’t have to wait for them to be written and published.

The downside, of course, is that I’m reading them through the library and other people are being slow and I just want more Murderbot now please and thank you. This enforced wait is especially jarring given that I got my hands on the first two on the same day, blazed through them both, and now have to wait for the rest of the series to be free (in order, no less).

Why do I love Murderbot? Probably for many of the same reasons that other people do. Martha Wells has done an excellent job forging a voice for this character, dry, wry, and full of sardonic wit. And Murderbot is not an especially reliable narrator, even if it may think of itself as one; while it does generally admit to its emotional experience eventually, it spends a good deal of effort trying not to. Plus, while it so clearly wants to think of itself as not-a-person, Murderbot’s internal monologue is extremely easy to sympathize with—which makes it feel even more person-like, even while it protests that it is not a person.

The inversion of expectation is another part of what I love so much about Murderbot. Who’d think a security cyborg would want to spend all its time watching soap operas, listening to music, or binging its way through trashy fiction? The fact that Murderbot simply wants to be left alone, not be looked at or spoken to, not be asked to do anything, and simply be allowed to indulge itself in stories… it’s delightful. It’s relatable. To my reading, Murderbot is anxious and depressed and just wants some peace and quiet. But it’s (of course) Murderbot’s inability to get the peace and quiet it desires that makes this all work so well.

I have mixed feelings about reluctant protagonists, mostly because of how our collective love of them in media shapes the way many people make their characters for RPGs. Players’ desire to make their characters match that popular reluctant archetype often plays out to their and their play group’s disservice, in my experience. But when a narrative is so wonderfully fit around that reluctance (much easier to manage in a linear narrative, of course)… well. It’s hard to match that narrative tension, and the struggles of someone with so relatable a set of goals and desires, faced with extraordinary circumstances, only make it better.

This character is very good. The story is very good. Martha Wells has done wonderful things here.

I owe my mom for this next observation, given that she made it while I was telling her about the book.

In some ways, Murderbot is reminiscent of Ferdinand the Bull (one of my favorite childhood characters and books). 

Murderbot is seen by everyone else as an object, and an object of fear, violence, and suspicion at that. But much like Ferdinand, it only wants to spend its time quietly, peacefully, not bothering anyone and not being bothered.

Unlike Ferdinand, Murderbot struggles to see itself as anything but an object—finds its own object-hood safer, maybe more comfortable, than thinking of itself as a person—and works to avoid any confrontation that might jostle the status quo. Better to remain in the limbo that you know, be it ever so depressing, confining, and uncomfortable, than to risk seeking something better. Though in Murderbot’s case the risk involved is quite literally obliteration, so maybe the caution is warranted.

Extremely vague *SPOILERS* follow.

I’m also fascinated by the shift from the first story to the second. Where the first felt like a more whole story, something that contained a more complete and satisfying emotional & character arc, the second story felt like an installment, another step along a longer path. The second also had elements that left me thinking of the differences between what a character *thinks* will be important—as well as what the longer term plot demands as another step along their path—and what is actually most transformative for them.

The Witness for the Dead might be a good example for disambiguating this: there are a lot of mostly-unrelated side plots, and only one or two of them tie back into the central intrigue of the story. Katherine Addison could have cut those side plots, or rewritten and collapsed them into the central plot somehow, but the first option would have left the story feeling sparse and the main character’s emotional journey unsupported… while the second would have felt too contrived, unreal. We put up with the second (those contrived, perfectly neat stories) in our fiction all the time, because we’ve been trained as readers to expect the elements of a story to all tie in together in the end, but that’s rarely very true as a depiction of real life—and allowing for divergence in those plot lines is both freeing and lets the author give more space to the rest of the world beyond the immediate plot of the story.

So in The Witness for the Dead our narrator pursues a series of different investigations and jobs, only some of which tie into his primary task. And while he’s trying to resolve one central investigation, it’s his struggles with the other ones—which have little bearing on the first—that inform his emotional growth and development. His initial concern is less important to his personal realizations.

All Systems Red meshes these struggles. All the plot conflicts, Murderbot’s personal emotional conflict and its external physical plot conflict, are wound together into one thread. There’s no real divergence, the whole thing is extremely neat.

But Artificial Condition makes space for divergence by containing parallel plot lines that feed into each other while remaining separate. Murderbot’s biggest emotional and personal growth comes from the plot line, the conflict, that it is less initially invested in. Thus Murderbot thinks that one course of action, one set of objectives, is the important one… only to find out that the other holds at least as much importance to it, that the way it is treated by humans matters far more to it than it had ever realized or accounted for before. This means that Artificial Condition changes the way the story had approached its combination of character development and physical plot in All Systems Red, and that’s at the core of why this sequel feels notably distinct from the first story.

*END SPOILERS*

Anyway.

I’m loving the Murderbot Diaries. I recommend them completely. They’re very good.

The Harder They Fall (2021)

Profoundly Western: part tragedy, part drama, and all about revenge and camaraderie and fighting to make a place in the world.

I can’t write about this movie without writing about Wild Wild West (the 1999 Will Smith film, not the midcentury TV show that gave rise to that movie). I also have to talk about the larger context of Westerns. And I ought to talk about American history post-Civil War, and how that’s been depicted in Hollywood. That deserves a deeper look, but I’ll try to keep it brief: I’m not ready to write an essay right now.

The Harder They Fall fits oddly well with Wild Wild West. This isn’t because they feel the same, though they are both set in the American West. Instead, it’s because of what they both do that few other movies have done.

Both movies break the Hollywood mould. Both do something unusual, especially for movies set (roughly) during Reconstruction; they feature black protagonists whose fundamental struggles are not about slavery.

Most movies set during or around that time prominently feature white protagonists. When there are Confederates, they’re often empathized with. When the protagonists are black, their dramatic struggle nearly always centers around slavery (their own, a loved one’s, etc.). And Westerns, as a subset of those movies, rarely feature people of color as anything other than The Other. ‘Western’ stories are nearly always “of the white people, by the white people, for the white people.” Given the fact that there were so many non-white people present in the land these stories are told about, and during the time when those stories are set, that’s a pretty egregious rewriting of history.

For a long time, Wild Wild West was the only movie I could point to that didn’t do that.

For all of its troublesome pieces (and there are many), Wild Wild West refused to toe that revisionist-history line. The film is set during Reconstruction, and its central protagonist is black and isn’t a slave. In fact, instead of centering his dramatic struggle around escaping enslavement (his own, or someone else’s), his fundamental duty is to hunt down Confederate terrorists still operating in the US post-war (very historical, unlike the giant spider-mecha). Relatedly, and most importantly, the movie never caters to the fantasy of the Lost Cause and the mythology of the Good Confederate that went along with it; unlike so many other movies set in this time period, Wild Wild West never defends the Confederacy or any of the racists who supported it. In fact, the villain is an unrepentant Confederate obsessed with reversing the outcome of the Civil War. There are a few white people on the hero’s side, but they’re in supporting roles and none of them are supposed to be reformed secessionists.

The Harder They Fall is very different. It’s not steampunk alternate history. It’s far less fantastical. It does do some fun things with visual design, sets, and costumes that may not be purely historically accurate, and it anachronistically combines several real historical people in one time, place, and story… but it’s down to earth. But like Wild Wild West, it features a black protagonist whose dramatic struggle doesn’t focus on slavery.

Actually, it goes way further than that. There isn’t a single main white character in the movie (let alone the redeemable Confederate that has long been a staple of Hollywood fare). The entire central cast is made up of people of color, just like the vast majority of the extras. On that front, The Harder They Fall blows Wild Wild West out of the water.

It even hews more closely to the expectations of the genre. Thematically, this story is profoundly Western: part tragedy, part drama, it’s all about revenge and camaraderie and fighting to make a place in the world. Actually, it reminds me a good deal of the Spaghetti Westerns, with its rich visual language and cinematography, with its omnipresent and evocative soundtrack, and with its violence. Honestly, it’s pretty brutal in places… it’s not quite Tarantino-esque, though the movie arguably references Django Unchained early on when someone shoots a white person before they can finish possibly saying the n-word.

So.

I don’t know if I can say just how happy I am to find another movie that does this. We need to end our cultural obsession with protecting the harmful mythology of the Lost Cause, and with casting Confederates as tragic noble knights instead of violently reactionary antidemocratic racists. This movie pushes us in that direction. We need more stories about people who aren’t white, and those stories should make space for them to be something more than slaves. This movie offers exactly that. I enjoy The Harder They Fall all the more for the way in which it gives these characters space to be people. It doesn’t offer a cure for every ailment, just… complicated people with their violent, complicated lives.

If you don’t like Westerns, or can’t handle violence with occasional bits of gruesomeness, I suggest you appreciate this movie from a distance. Otherwise, have at. It’s good.

Huh. I got so wrapped up in talking about bigger, structural things, I forgot to mention that I just like this movie as a movie. The cast is lots of fun, the story delivers what I want, there are twists that I enjoy… it’s a good movie. It’s a good Western. And it’s even better for all the other things I mentioned above.

The Witness for the Dead, by Katherine Addison

The Goblin Emperor was my first introduction to Katherine Addison (pen name for Sarah Monette). As I mentioned when I wrote about that book, I admire the way in which Addison creates meaningful, real characters, people who feel like they have tangible depth even when I don’t like them (and don’t want to like them) at all.

The Witness for the Dead does it again. I don’t feel quite as uplifted or warmed with hope as I did after the first book—possibly because the main character is in such a low place himself, and somehow slogging his way through that without making the book feel depressing—but this one still feels good and truthful. It’s still peaceful in a way that I appreciate, bringing resolution to the important things while allowing the less important things to pass along. And the main character, once again, feels like a decent person who retains his decency through everything that this story (full of other people’s intrigue, and others’ dislike for the main character) has to offer. This book is, to borrow a word from John Scalzi’s review, intimate.

Oh, and this book follows a different main character than the first. It’s a sequel insofar as it follows someone who shows up in the first book, is in the same setting, and occurs after the first book’s events. But otherwise, little of the first book’s story matters all that much here.

I suppose, if you haven’t read The Goblin Emperor and don’t know much about the setting, this might be a bit of a shock to your system. Addison doesn’t bother to explain any of the in-setting terminology that she uses (modes of address, important morphemes denoting gender, class, familial relationship). As such, understanding who’s who and getting over that initial hurdle of comprehension might be a little rough. I know enough about my preferences to realize that many readers want a little more context, a slightly less abrupt introduction to a complicated setting, than I do. This book might not offer that.

Come to think of it, I’m not sure that Addison did that much to explain the setting’s conventions in The Goblin Emperor either. But that book had a slightly slower introduction to more complicated social dynamics—and had a main character who constantly thought about the social cues involved—and thereby made more room for the reader to gain expertise before being thrown into the deep end. That’s less the case here. There are still small contextual cues, e.g. thoughts from the narrator which reflect on terms of address, but (based solely on old memories) I think there’s a slightly steeper learning curve to this book than the previous one.

That does not mean that this book is bad. I really liked it. I strongly recommend it, especially for those who want heartfelt fantasy that gives more attention to characters’ internal worlds, and which takes time to make people feel like people instead of plot-relevant cardboard cut-outs. In that way it has many similarities to Becky Chambers’ Wayfarer series, except that The Witness for the Dead, like The Goblin Emperor before it, has more external plot and intrigue.

So if you’re looking for fantasy intrigue with well-written characters, or stories that include external plot but give more weight to a character’s personal journey, The Witness for the Dead might be for you. Enjoy.