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.

I Guess “Jacopo’s Ridiculous Liege” Didn’t Have The Same Ring To It?

This brief post is all about showing a little appreciation for The Count of Monte Cristo, both the story written by Alexandre Dumas (which I must admit I’ve only ever read in abridged form) and the 2002 movie-version of the same tale.

I watched it again recently. I was forcibly reminded of how well Dumas wrote melodramatic excitement, and impressed by the way he wove it into the very fabric of his stories. As an overweening revenge fantasy filled with now clichéd twists, there’s still something classically appealing about the whole thing.

But I admit, the standard storyline gets a little same-old, same-old. There’s only so far my appreciation for Dumas’ excellent treatment of the form will take me before I start rebelling. No matter how much the movie may claim that Edmond Dantes is the main character, the one most deserving of our attention, I can’t help but feel that he (and his frenemy Fernand Mondego) are whiny and/or stupid assholes.

No, Jacopo is the one I like best.

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That’s right, that guy right there. Jacopo, as played by Luis Guzmán. He’s smart (if not a genius), he’s loyal, and he has his head set firmly on his shoulders. When Dantes first lays out his plans for revenge, Jacopo responds: Why not just kill them? I’ll do it! I’ll run up to Paris – bam, bam, bam, bam. I’m back before week’s end. We spend the treasure. How is this a bad plan?

This line is almost delivered as comedy, maybe at Jacopo’s expense for being so simpleminded. But the truth is, Jacopo more or less has the right of it. And that continues to be the case throughout the entire story. He goes along with Dantes because he swore that he would be his man after Dantes spared his life, but that doesn’t stop Jacopo from pointing out Dantes’ insanities and obsessions. I’m rarely happier watching this movie than when Luis Guzmán is on screen.

It’s a good thing I like watching him so much, because I think I’ll need to revisit this film again soon for some appropriate inspiration to my various swashbuckling-esque stories. It’s good stuff.

Flash Fiction: So many guns

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Another week, another bit of flash fiction adventure.  Chuck Wendig brought back the X meets Y challenge (last time I got Transformers meets Toy Story, which somehow led to a magical girl inspired western).  This time I got True Detective meets Guardians of the Galaxy.  I was stumped at first, but then I realized that GotG is actually just classic adventure fiction; I can easily replace space with water and spaceships with boats, and end up with a solid swashbuckling genre homage instead.  As such, I wrote the piece in my Elven Progenitors setting.  I think you’ll see the True Detective parallels without too much effort, if you have a decent memory for some of the episodes and character dynamics.  This is, of course, it’s own thing.  I also consider it more rough than usual, since I’m a bit rushed; I have to go get in line for the Avengers!

Anyway, I hope you like it.

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