100 Books in 2011 Challenge: Mistral’s Kiss

The first third of Mistral’s Kiss by Laurell K. Hamilton is basically one long sex scene with the protagonist, Merry Gentry having sex with some of her guard. After a while it becomes apparent that the reason for this is that she needs to get pregnant in order to become the heir to her Aunt’s faerie kingdom. It’s not good sex though. Mainly she just lays there while various men go wild with desire on her. It’s all very passive and not particularly engaging.

So for the first 150 pages I was mostly wondering what this book was supposed to be. There wasn’t a lot of plot in the first section. To be fair, this is number five in a series where, yet again, I haven’t read the previous books, so potentially I wasn’t quite getting what was going on.

The middle 100 pages of the book are a bit different. Merry and her guards bring life back to the faerie garden where they are having sex but the garden begins to swallow them up. They escape into another faerie realm and encounter the King of the Sluagh. With whom Merry has previously agreed to have sex so that he has a chance to father her child. At this point, the book starts to make sense as myth. This is the pagan wheel of life, the goddess and god coming to come together in a fertility rite. So there is more unexciting sex. Then the wild hunt is raised and Merry and her guards have to run for their lives.

They open a door into the mundane world. The last 100 pages are more like an urban fantasy detective novel. Merry and her guards fight the wild hunt and transform it into hounds. This is a book that doesn’t seem to know what it is. Is it erotica? Or urban fantasy? Or mythic allegory? It could be all three if they were blended together. I don’t think it would be easy, but it could be good. Instead this is three separate sections one after another and it doesn’t work.

The role of women in the book is problematic. Obviously I can’t say whether it is just this book or the whole series. The female protagonist is constantly surrounded by men, who don’t have fully developed personalities, and the only other female characters are her enemies. There’s her aunt who is a sexual sadist and mainly seems to want to kill Merry. Then there are two sluagh hags who are presented as possessive, jealous and manipulative. It’s a combination of a wish-fulfilment protagonist and misogyny.

The writing problems in this book aren’t about language, they’re about structure. The pacing is awful, characterization is sketchy, and it doesn’t know what it is. I’ll be giving the rest of them a miss.

100 Books in 2011 review: Forbidden Magic

I love the idea of paranormal romances. Erotic romance combined with fantasy sounds like something I could really enjoy. What could go wrong?

Forbidden Magic by Cheyenne McGray is the first of a series. A witch who works with law enforcement to solve mystical crimes discovers that a coven of black warlocks is planning to summon people-eating demons to earth. Failing to convince her coven to summon the Tuatha D’anann, she does it on her own, but only one of them comes. Her coven is attacked by the demons and then she and her warrior ally convince the rest of the Tuatha D’anann to come to fight the demons.

You know, it sounds promising and I’m always up for a bit of silliness in plot terms, so long as it’s well-written silliness. And that’s what could go wrong. The characters are pretty stereotypical. Aside from the witch Silver, and her Tuatha D’anann lover Hawk, the characters are flat and boring. The members of the Tuatha D’anann party, the law enforcement team, and the coven, are just names with the odd bit of description attached. There is no personalisation and no individualisation.

Romance writing is different in that the focus is on the development of the central relationship and on the sex scenes. But for me, the relationship in this case didn’t feel convincing. The sex scenes did the job they’re supposed to do. They were ok but not great. And I was rather disappointed by the kinky sex only being allocated to the evil characters – the kind of sex you have doesn’t say anything about character and it’s not good writing to rely on such obvious tropes.

Unfortunately, there’s not a lot to recommend about this one. Anyone got any recommendations for really good paranormal romances?  

Does lots of sex scenes mean bad books?

I was reading ‘The “Tyranny of Sex” in the Saudi Novel over at MuslimahMediaWatch today and it got me thinking about sex and writing, or more specifically, writing sex scenes. While the MuslimahMediaWatch article is more focussed on reflecting on Saudi society, this caught my eye:

It was government cultural head Mahmoud Al-Watan who complained of “the
tyranny of sex in the Saudi novel,” saying it falls to those without talent to
slap some sex on to the page and “call it a novel”

Which got me thinking about Jilly Cooper and Jackie Collins and the bonkbuster novels of the eighties that I devoured. Now, I’m not going to argue that these books were great literature – that would be too contrarian even for me – but I do think they occupied an important place at an important time.
Most of us don’t have that many sexual partners according to my highly unscientific analysis of all the people I’ve ever known that have told me anything about their sex lives. Either you are sexually adventurous (caveat: this includes all varieties of motivation, postive or negative) or you tend to have had roughly the same number of partners as you’ve had relationships, and
for most people that number seems to be between five and fifteen.
My point is that most of us don’t learn about sex by doing it with lots of different people. For me, reading glamourous, sexy novels as a teenager was exciting and a large part of that was reading the sex scenes. Proper erotica just seemed too daunting: too hard to get hold of, and harder to defend if someone were to question your choice of reading material. So Jilly Cooper and Jackie Collins et al were a window on to the adult world of sex without the danger of getting into something you couldn’t handle.
It gave us an idea of what good sex could be like. Despite raunch culture and the ever-present sexual objectification of women, there is still an undercurrent of socialisation that insists women don’t and shouldn’t enjoy sex; that sex is really for men. Bonkbusters can be an antidote to this where they show women enjoying sex. They showed us how amazing it could be how good it could feel. Having had sex of varying qualities, I don’t think these depictions of sex were unattainable or fantastic. Sex can be as fun, exciting and fulfilling as the novels. And maybe more men should read them…
Storytelling is the way we share our interpretations of the world we live in. If Saudi novelists are writing about sex that’s because it’s vital to life and maybe it’s a little bit because it is reflecting how their society is changing.
The quote above rolls out the stereotypical connection between bad writing and lots of sex scenes. While it may be true that much erotica is poorly written, and it may be true that a thin plot can be padded out with sex scenes (not that I’ve ever done that myself, you understand), it is undeniably true that writing sex scenes is difficult. The Bad Sex in Fiction Award annually proves that all sorts of writers – the good, the bad and the indifferent – flounder when it comes to describing sex on the page. There is a lot of potential for getting it wrong.
There are also lots of writers getting it right. There are stories which have moments when having sex is absolutely the thing that your characters would do, and showing it to your reader demonstrates something about their relationship that is important. I can think of a number of books I’ve read recently in which the sex scenes were great. So, no, lots of sex scenes doesn’t equal bad writing.

The Steel Remains

Well, it’s been a busy time lately, what with finishing up one job and preparing for the next. One last work-related out of town trip didn’t help either.

Tomorrow I start my new job with all that entails and I’m looking forward to getting back into a routine. As I’ll be commuting, I plan to read lots, which means lots of posts on what I’ve been reading. I hesitate to call them reviews because they are more like musings. Anyway, to get in to the mood, lately I’ve finished:

The Steel Remains, by Richard Morgan. I picked this up because I’d heard it compared to Joe Abercrombie’s work (I’m such a fangirl; it’s embarrassing). This I found to be both true and not true. And I found that there were things I liked and things I didn’t.

It was a stand-alone novel in a sea of trilogies and series.

I liked that the protagonist was a marginalised minority in his world and that his experiences reflected the shocking, traumatic reality of someone in that position. I liked that the three main characters were all, in some way, outsiders and that it was done without romanticising their positions. These aren’t glorious, loner heroes nobly serving the community. They are damaged people making limited choices. Just like us.

The book is quite bleak and driven by bitterness and anger. I thought that the characters’ awareness of the consequences of their experiences was realistic. Sometimes they faced what had happened to them in the past and was happening to them now and acknowledged how it shaped them, and sometimes they didn’t. Sometimes they saw themselves clearly and at others they were self-deluding.

I also liked the sex scenes. A couple of days ago, I was sent a news story about the Bad Sex in Fiction Awards and it reminded me that it is apparently difficult to write sex well. Richard Morgan writes sex very well. He whips up an emotional response without losing touch with the earthiness of the act. Brilliant.

As an aside, I wonder if the reason so many great literary names find themselves on the Bad Sex in Fiction Award shortlist is because they’re not that good at writing and sex scenes show up the weaknesses in convoluted, pseudo-intellectual prose. Or perhaps I’m just being snarky. What do you think?

What I didn’t enjoy so much was the rushed ending. At the start of the book we follow three characters who have a shared history and whose lives are being disrupted by similar events. The convention of fantasy fiction is that at some point these three paths will merge. Morgan draws this point out right until the very end. Then, when the three characters come together, the final scenes happen in what seems like a small number of pages. As I was nearing the end of the book and the three hadn’t met I found myself wondering if this was a trilogy after all. While I appreciate that life is often a slow build up to a brief climax leaving you vaguely disappointed, this was perhaps a touch too much realism for the novel.

I felt the exposition was handled in a slightly clumsy way and there were several points where the reader was taken out of the action into interior monologue. This was particularly true at the beginning of the book.

And all the swearing! Don’t get me wrong, I don’t actually mind swearing. I enjoy the full use of a wide vocabulary. It felt a little heavy handed though. Too much spice for the stew.

All in all, I enjoyed it and I’d recommend it. Unless you don’t like brutal, gritty, realistic depictions of life.