I promised [profile] bookelfe I would read this. Thanks! I think.

[profile] bookelfe reviewed a remarkable book, Pigs Don’t Fly, in which a rather unlikable heroine goes on a quest with six companions to make the mystical seven: a blind amnesiac knight, a horse princess, a cockney mutt, a Turtle of Love, a farm boy named Dickon, and The Wimperling, a winged pig who flies by farting. I am not making this up. I commend you to her hilarious review before you read mine, since this review is of the sequel, which she challenged me to read. Especially since I am about to spoil the end of Pigs Don’t Fly, since it motivates the entire action of this book.

Pigs Don’t Fly ends with Summer, the heroine, kissing her beloved pet flying farting pig. Poof! He turns into a dragon! Poof! He turns into a man! In a somewhat confusing scene, they have sex. Poof! He turns into a dragon!

He is a dragon who was under an enchantment which made him look like a pig. But since Summer kissed him three times as a pig, though he is now a dragon again, he is also now cursed to periodically turn into a man. He explains all this, then flies off to China, ditching Summer.

Master of Many Treasures picks up with Summer stalking her dragon-pig-not-boyfriend across the world. Occasionally she finds it necessary to justify herself to the reader:

But why fall in love with a dragon? Because I had loved the pig and the dragon wasn’t a dragon all the time.

Summer. Summer. You do not make falling in love with a dragon more acceptable by protesting that you actually fell in love with a pig!

But mostly, she doesn’t think about her dragon-pig not-boyfriend much at all. She’s too busy wandering around collecting plot coupons as she travels around, having basically everyone she meets see through her "boy" disguise and periodically conversing ethnically stereotyped characters speaking in comic dialect. This book is over-burdened with comic dialect. Her own companions include Growch the cockney mutt, a slave boy speaking an unknown language and broken English otherwise, and a developmentally disabled dancing bear. (Yes, really.)

Thankfully, three of Summer’s obligatory six companions do not speak in dialect: Ky-Lin, a magical Chinese stone chimera which she gets literally handed to her for no actual reason other than that the plot requires her to have it, Dickon, and the teeny dragon egg with which Summer was unknowingly impregnated.

Yes. She is pregnant with an egg. She keeps feeling sick in a pregnancy-signalling manner, but thinks that she can’t possibly be pregnant because it’s been a year since she had sex that one time. There are flashbacks to her sexcapade with the dragon-pig-dude, which are written in a manner probably meant to convey that it was all very unexpected and confusing, but really make it sound like the entire thing lasted about fifteen seconds. Which is entirely possible, all things considered.

With the help of Ky-Lin, Summer lays the egg through her belly button. I think. The scene is really vague. It’s possible that she lays it through some other orifice, but it’s then stuck into her belly button. It ends up stuck to her belly button, anyway.

Ky-Lin then helpfully explains that dragons are “bisexual.” He defines this as meaning that they are both male and female, and can fertilize themselves, so… I forget why this was relevant.

I don’t know why an egg that does not speak, telepathically communicate, or hatch counts as a companion, but it does. Mystic seven!

Ky-Lin spouts a lot of Buddhist philosophy which, based on its accuracy, I surmise was gleaned from the author vaguely remembering what she’d read in the Religions of the World chapter of some textbook when she was twelve. That being said, he does not speak in comic dialect and is the only character with any intelligence or common sense, so I cut him a lot of slack.

I barely remember Dickon from the first book, other than as a generic farm boy. In this book, he seems to be running for most unlikable character ever. He spends the entire book stalking Summer because he thinks she’s on a quest for treasure. He steals her stuff, drugs her, insults her and her companions, flees in a cowardly fashion whenever they’re endangered, and drinks all their water when they’re lost in the desert.

They have the same unbelievably annoying interaction something like six times in the book: Dickon shows up and harasses, vaguely threatens, robs, and/or leeches on Summer. She has an extremely bad feeling about him (I wonder why!) but even though she’s not afraid of him and she has a premonition that he will do something horrible, she always feels unable to tell him to get lost. He proceeds to harass, vaguely threaten, rob, and/or leech on Summer until he somehow gets ditched. She proceeds without him, until he turns up again, and the process repeats.

Summer is one of the stupidest protagonists I have ever encountered. Whenever someone acts suspicious or threatening, she assumes they can't possibly have bad intentions, and is amazed when they do. Whenever a clearly friendly person warns her of something, she is suspicious and ignores them. My very favorite instance of this was when Ky-Lin is leading her through a marsh full of quicksand and rotting corpses, and says, "The left path will dump you in quicksand. Take the right path."

Summer: "I'm tired of people bossing me!"

Summer: [Takes left path.]

Summer: [Is dumped into rotting corpse-filled quicksand.]

And then the true WTF begins. Even more WTF than the belly-button dragon egg.

Read more... )

This all seems even more WTF than it would anyway because there has been no set-up that would make any of this make sense, thematically or any other way. The entire book is Summer's first person POV, except for the two epilogues.

I don't think I've ever read a book which was improved by two epilogues.

I think there’s a third book that explains what happened to the egg. I’ll pass.

Here There Be Dragonnes (Pigs Don't Fly omnibus). This is an omnibus which contains The Unlikely Ones, which has some problems but which I actually like. It's a very similar story to Pigs Don't Fly: girl who thinks she's ugly due to manipulation by an older woman guardian goes on a quest with one man and five animals, and discovers that she was beautiful all along. The difference is that it's written as a dreamy, poetic fairy-tale, and parts of it are quite beautiful and moving. Other parts show a witch having sex with a broomstick, in a short but understandably memorable scene. One of the heroes is a unicorn who is in love with an enchanted prince, so the human/mythical animal theme is also there. It's done a lot better and less ridiculously in The Unlikely Ones.
Panelists: Rachel Manija Brown, Cora Anderson, Janni Lee Simner

Please forgive or correct any errors made in these notes. They were typed quickly and in shorthand, and I made them legible and comprehensible as best I could. But they are not 100% complete or accurate.

R: What was your introduction to the idea of companion animals?

J: Pern! And imaginary friends when I was growing up

C: The She-ra horse! When I was six, I had an imaginary friend who was a winged unicorn named Starlight with a rainbow mane, who could turn invisible and go to school with me. Oh, and Pern also.

R: Dragonsong I used to think up lists of names ending in -th. I mostly had blue and green dragons - the sidekick dragons. I always liked the sidekick characters. Also, I used to tame wild animals when I was a kid. You can tame a feral cat in about six months, if you’re patient.

R: What is the appeal of a companion animal (telepathic or not)?

R: I was obsessed with animals, and you get into an emphatic empathic communion when you sit for hours with feral cats. Telepathy goes right to the heart of that. Also, there’s a powerful draw in the idea of a creature that can understand you perfectly. At least, there is when you’re as a kid.

C: There’s something about creatures that not only understand you but love you regardless. Pern dragons never say 'fuck this noise, I'm outta here,' no matter what you do). McCaffrey has said Pern is inspired by the feeling, as a five-year-old, of getting a pet. You want the pet to be a perfect friend, and it just wants to be a cat. It's what you want from a childhood pet, then a boy/girlfriend, that you can’t have. It’s the wish fulfillment that something can understand you completely.

J: As an outcast child with no close friends until later, imaginary friends always were there for you and also wanted to do what you wanted. Best friend + subservience.

R: Should we jump into subservience?

C: The Heralds of Valdemar. In those, the Companion will in fact repudiate you and leave. The Pernese bond is unbreakable. In other ones, the animals don't have human morality. The Companions are metaphors for guardian angels; they won't condone serial killers. It’s a different type of relationship.

R: Don't forget they are sparkly magic white horses.

C: It’s the dream of a horse, not a real horse.

J: When I first rode a horse, I was disappointed. They weren't flying!

R: Judith Tarr said Anne McCaffrey based dragon Impression on watching humans with young horses. Of course a real horse is much more rebellious.

C: And can't talk.

J: But then you can believe they understand you perfectly. If they can’t talk they can’t contradict that feeling.

R: Going back to the idea of companions as metaphors for other relationships…

J: Childhood wish fulfillment animals. I get much less interested when it becomes metaphors for adult relationships, but fiction seems more interested in that.

R: Romantic relationship with everything but the sex... and sometimes they do include sex, hopefully not with the animal. The Temeraire series by Naomi Novik has dragons in the Napoleonic wars. Those dragon-human relationships are very much like a good marriage, complete with falling outs, but if the humans have sex, it doesn’t affect the dragons, and vice versa.

C: I've read the first book - that's the one where the relationship is seriously romantic. Another rider treats his dragon as an aircraft, and the dragon just wants to be loved. The rider gives it more baubles and thinks that’s all it needs. It’s classic unrequited love, complete with pining.

J: Most bondings happen with adolescence. It’s a stand in for coming of age/romance.

R: Before the panel we were talking about Ariel, by Stephen Boyett. It’s maybe not that good of a book objectively, but it’s interesting. The hero is a teenage boy in a post-apocalyptic world where technology has been replaced by magic. He bonded with his unicorn when he was twelve, when the book starts he’s nineteen. The virgin mythology is real. They fight sometimes. It’s definitely a romantic relationship. But he can't have sex with anyone, woes. At the end he does, and the unicorn leaves. It’s clear that unicorns are better than sex.

C: And then there's Pern, where you have to have sex. [Audience indicates that they’ve almost all read Pern.] When the dragons do it, so do you. NO EXCEPTIONS!

J: You are forced to the dragon’s schedule. How do they feel when the humans are still at it?

R: The Pern books actually mention that. I think it was meant as id wish fulfillment, but it comes across as problematic, McCaffery used just enough realism that it seems creepy.

C: She's said in interviews that these are not romantic relationship, but in the books, the dragon’s partners are almost always the humans’ partners. So, you start getting sex = love. It makes the concept of choice more problematic.

J: Also one-sided.

R: Pern has very contradictory canon. The dragons are color-coded by gender. Green dragons are always ridden by men, and they’re always female. The only dragons with female riders are gold, and they’re extremely rare. So most dragon-mating would also involve men having sex with men. But it took 10 books for McCaffrey to be explicit about that.

C: I totally didn't notice that when I was nine.

R: I think the dragon mating is meant to be the wish-fulfillment of being utterly swept away by passion. It’s an appealing fantasy, but the execution highlights the creepy aspects: rape is love

C: There’ve been thousands of discussions about this. There’s the 70s trend of romance novels that start with rape. One theory is that in society where it's not OK for women to want to have sex, it's an out so that you don't feel like a “slut.” [Sarcasm scare quotes.] It can be a safety net if you don't own your own desire. Is the dragon mating flight the same thing? “It wasn't me, it was the dragon!”

R: Animals are close to nature, so it may also be the romanticized idea of that. You don’t have to worry about social restrictions. Let’s just all bone!

J: Do any books go the other way? Where the animals and people have to discuss whether they want to have sex?

C: Arrows of the Queen, sort of. A girl is bonded to stallion. Sex is not stigmatized and they are not compelled to have sex when the other, but they can tell. “Could you warn me next time? I'm in the middle of something, and then really?” They negotiate the timing.

R: The C. J. Cherryh Finisterre novels. (Rider at the Gate) We should discuss these more when we get to parodies and dark takes. On this planet, animal life is telepathic and empathic, and can overwhelm humans. Certain people can bond with night horses and put up mental shields. Sex transmits both ways. But it’s not overpowering, you can go with it or not. There’s one scene where the rider wants sex, and the horse is bored.

C: If your companion animal is comparable intelligence to you, what does it mean that the human is the decider?

J: Except in Valdemar.

C: It’s not always the case, but most often. Dragons have no choice in Pern. They have to do what they are told to do, no exceptions.

J: A Swiftly Tilting Planet. There’s a flying unicorn and a boy; neither are making solo decisions.

Audience: In Pern they are bonded, but choices are built into the environment

C: In Temeraire, dragons are human-level smart but subservient. Later in the series they start trying to get voting rights.

R: In other parts of that world dragons are equal to humans, or even superior.

R: Wolf companions are interesting because authors tend to use older research that turned out to be incorrect. The concept of the alpha wolf comes from wolf behavior in zoos. In the wild, the wolf pack is actually a family: a breeding male, a breeding female and pups. It’s not about constant fighting for dominance or rape.

J: A happy family of wolves. I want to read that.

C: Ya'll can talk about sex, I'm talking about Jhereg. It’s got a snarky flying lizard. AND IT’S AWESOME. It’s extraordinarily loyal, but will tell you that you're stupid. It’s much more realistic, like real friends. Not a creepy “I love you forever and everything you do is awesome.”

J: So you need your perfect friend companion, and your companion who will give you advice and call you out.

A: Sabriel: Mogget and the Destructible Disreputable Dog.

R: A kind of subversive version is Diana Wynne Jones’ Dogsbody. Who is whose companion? Sirius the Dog Star is a powerful being in the form of a tiny dog. It’s told from dog’s point of view, and the girl is actually called a “companion.”

C: Other books where the animal is the POV character?

J: Maybe the Valdemar short stories?

A: The Princess and the Bear

A: Traveller (Not fantasy.)

C: Does the bond need to be magical? I was explaining to my mother-in-law what I was doing at Sirens and since she doesn’t read fantasy, I explained what a bond animal was. She is blind and has a guide dog, and asked whether her guide dog was a ‘bond animal.’

J: Even in fiction it’s not always a magical bond, now that you mention it.

R: Sure. Pern is what first comes to mind, but Robin McKinley is next. She has very emotional relationships with non-magical bonded animals. She also has service animals. If you look at Deerskin and The Hero and the Crown, there are points where the heroine is badly wounded or sick, and her horse or dog acts as her service animal.

J: In Tamora Pierce’s books, everyone ends up with animals. They’re not always magical.

Audience: Have you read the Mountain's Call series by Judith Tarr, with the horses? (The Mountain's Call; under a pseudonym.) I loved Pern, but not so much for the sex issues. I read Valdemar, but the companions a bit too much – it’s a great relationship if you fall in line. In Tarr’s series, she really nailed the perfect horse relationship. No one is in charge. There are Gods in horses bodies, but they act like horses.

J: Tarr has a YA book, House of the Star, with magical horses. [Under a pseudonym.] The protagonist asks the horses why they need humans. The horse says humans can think around corners.

Audience: No one was better than anyone else. No subservience.

J: You get something bigger than the sum of either.

C: Question time!

Audience: Friendships vs. Partnership? Dealing with Dragons books.

R: I didn't think of those because I would think of them more as two characters, not an animal companion.

C: In those, the human is the companion animal.

Audience: Back to sex! There are books with deep romantic but non-sexual bonds with animals. Everyone avoided using the word asexual. Is that conscious, that the human is in an asexual relationship? Or is it just bestiality avoidance?

C: In most examples the characters do have sex, just not with each other. I hadn’t considered the idea of bond animals as asexual relationship. That’s a good thing to think about.

R: Yeah, it’s interesting. I didn’t think of it because the partners are usually sexual, but with others.

J: That would be a good opportunity for exploration.

A: It could be a model of an asexual partnership.

A: Zoo City, by Lauren Beukes, is a book where you only get a companion animal if you were bad. If people saw it, they knew you did something wrong.

R: We didn't get a chance to talk about it, but there’s a little subgenre where the animal companion is a part of you, a manifestation of your soul. Zoo City actually had a little take on The Golden Compass included as a fake academic paper.

Audience: There’s the Firekeeper series. (Wolf Captured (Firekeeper)) Would that count as companion animals? Girl raised by wolves. She can't remember who she is. One of the wolves is her best friend. They even have thoughts of 'if we were the same species, we'd be together' but it's not weird. They can speak, but not telepathically; the way wolves speak. Is that a companion animal?

J: Raised by wolves is a trope on its own.

Audience: She thinks of herself as a wolf. When she’s found by humans, she insists she is a wolf. Her relationship with the wolf does become romantic but not sexually. It’s an example of a romantic asexual relationship.

J: There’s a wide range of ways of dealing with this. It hasn't been explored enough.

R: If ya'll go write it, there are lots of places to explore.

J: The animals are always the good guys.

R: No! If you want to see evil companion animals, read Sheri Tepper’s Grass. The companion horse are evil aliens. The Cherryh books I mentioned earlier have a parody of the special girl with a special bond. It doesn't go very well.

Audience: Recommends Yuletide fics that were dark interpretations of Valdemar.
Jody ([livejournal.com profile] canandagirl) and I scampered out of the dojo early yesterday to drive down to Huntington Beach to catch a signing by George R. R. Martin. I had once had breakfast with him in what was supposed to be a business meeting to discuss him doing a project for the Jim Henson Company, only due to some complicated tangle of circumstances, my boss never showed up and was unreachable by cell phone, and then we all got laid off from Henson immediately afterward so there was no follow-up. I enjoyed having breakfast with him, but as a meeting it was pretty disastrous.

When I was having my book signed, I reminded him of our meeting, and he said, "Oh, yeah, that was the one where your boss never showed up." "Yes," I said. "Actually, she meant to come to this signing, but... well..."

He talked for quite a while about the evolution of "A Song of Ice and Fire." He had just started writing a new novel, Avalon, when he got the idea for the first chapter of the first book, with the Stark kids finding the dire wolf pups in the snow, and started writing that instead. Then he got TV offers and set the book aside for several years. But unlike most books he set aside and then tried to return to, which previously had meant that he'd forgotten his initial inspiration and could never finish them, ASOIAF was just as fresh in his mind when he returned to it as if it had been put down the day before.

He also talked about how the series turned into a bestseller, which I found quite interesting though I don't know if the rest of the audience did. He said the first volume didn't do that great in hardcover, despite a fair amount of publicity and a book tour-- at which several stops had three people there, and one, at the bookshop cafe, had four people there, who fled as soon as his presence was announced. At another, he was upstaged by Clifford the Big Red Dog. But the paperback did better, and at that point started generating good word-of-mouth. Also, people who read the paperback and liked it frequently bought copies to give to their friends, and if their friends liked it, they bought copies to give to their friends, and it snowballed from there. Naturally, I found this very encouraging.

There was a big crowd-- about 250-- and we were given numbered wristbands for the signing, so I whiled away the time by reading books on sushi. (Jody read books on soup.) Then I wandered off to SF, and there I found the infamous venom cock
book, Touched by Venom.

I can attest that not only does the phrase "venom cock" appear in the book, it appears three times on page eight alone. Also, if you open it randomly, you are guaranteed to find one or more of the following:

a) A scene of off-putting violence.
b) Unintentionally humourous sentences, like "Understand, women do not revere the venom cock as men do."
c) Dialogue ending in "hey-o."
d) Unintentionally humourous words or phrases, such as "venom cock," "dragonwhore," or "hey-o."
e) Disgusting and obscene scenes of dragon-on-human cunnilingus and other forms of dragon-human bestiality.
f) Characters with names like "Nng-Tnk." (I read bits aloud to Jody, and at my attempt at pronouncing "Nlg-Tlc," or whatever the six-letter vowelless name was, she said, "Is that what you say when a dragon sticks its tongue in you?")

Now, if you open one of Martin's books randomly, you are very likely to find a scene of off-putting violence. You may also find a name with dodgy spelling, like Petyr or Lysa, though you will not find a name like "Nng-Tnk." But you are just as likely to find some arresting image or gripping situation or intentionally humourous dialogue. An extensive flip-through may convince you that you don't want to buy the book, but it's unlikely to prompt you to read passages aloud to your friends prefaced by "I can't believe someone published this thing." And somehow, I don't think that people who read Touched by Venom are going to press copies upon their friends.

You can write a book full of brutal violence, rape, and bad things happening to children, like Martin did. You can write a book where sex is going on in the vicinity of dragons, like Anne McCaffrey did. You can write a book with a lot of "perverse" sex, like Jacqueline Carey did. And you can write a book full of funny names, like lots of fantasy writers have. But you had better write in pretty prose like Carey's, or pile on the wish-fulfillment like McCaffrey, or tell an incredibly gripping story full of interesting characters like Martin.

Some people will be sufficiently turned off by the S & M or the violence or the man/beetle-headed woman sex or whatever off-putting elements you've included that they won't read the book no matter how good it is. But if there's enough good stuff to offset the subject matter, or you write it so that the subject matter becomes, for the space of the book, compelling or even attractive, you will get some sub-section of readers anyway-- sometimes enough to get a bestseller.

But if the prose isn't good, and the dialogue is more goofy than snappy, and the sex is ugly and disturbing, and there's lots of creepy violence, and the names and dialogue are laughable, AND the concept is freaky... you're probably going to be best-remembered as "the venom cock book." And I don't think any of us want that.
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