My apologies for the incredibly late review. Perhaps starting a monthly book club and graduate school at the same time was a trifle over-ambitious. If you too are pressed for time, here’s my short review: Damn, that was a good book. Go get it!

Everyone knows about the Witches’ Carnival: the group of near-immortal hedonists who travel from town to town across the world, throwing the wildest party anyone’s ever attended, if you’re lucky enough to hear about it and cool enough to get in, and then vanishing without a trace. And if you’re really lucky, smart, cool, wild, and brave, maybe they’ll take you with them.

Alabama high school girls Gilly and Sam have been best friends since Sam rescued Gilly from homophobic bullying. Gilly longs to be beautiful and cool, and does her best by putting on an aggressive punk front. She’s not-so-secretly in love with Sam, which is hard to get over given that Sam, who identifies as straight, does sometimes have sex with her. It’s an unusually realistic depiction of how confusing and fluid sexuality, sexual orientation, and identity can be. After Sam gets in a horrendous fight with her family, she convinces Gilly to come with her to seek out the Witches’ Carnival. Gilly steals $50,000 of her crooked cop father’s dirty money, and they hit the road.

The novel reminded me a little bit of earlyish books by Charles de Lint and a lot of earlyish books by Francesca Lia Block, but less cute and more gritty. Some of the grittiness is laid on heavily, but it’s also genuinely edgy: not only is there explicit teen lesbian sex (much of it very satisfyingly hot), but the girls’ dialogue is politically incorrect in the extreme, and there is a detailed (and quite interesting) explanation of how to create a fake US passport. Not to mention an enormous amount of drug-taking. In fact, while there is one disquieting bad trip, the novel sometimes read like the author had made a product placement deal with the Mescaline Producers of America.

Sam and Gilly – Gilly, especially – are believable, vivid characters, and their bond gives the book its emotional force. The prose is distinctive and sometimes quite beautiful. Halfway between a picaresque road trip novel and a more tightly plotted fantasy, nearly every character and incident has its own thematic or plot-related part to play in the whole. While the novel could be loglined “Bonnie and Clyde meets Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but with teenage girls,” the other main reference point is Doctor Faustus. The climax, in which the characters must decide whether or not to make a very pricy deal with the not-quite-devils, is quite powerful. The ending isn’t the one I expected, but it’s satisfying.

There are some flaws. One of the immortals is Christopher Marlowe. When immortal traveling hedonist Christopher Marlowe is a character, it would be nice if 1) he had more than a cameo role, 2) he made any impression whatsoever. I liked the highly unconventional-for-modern-YA multiple-POVs, which gave the novel a sense of richness and scope lacking in most YA fantasy I’ve read lately, but we probably didn’t need quite as much of Gilly’s Dad’s POV as we got. Sometimes the grittiness felt calculated or over the top. At one point a character is running around and doing stuff with an injury severe enough that they would be more likely to be curled up on the sidewalk until they got taken away by ambulance.

Finally, there is a very important song which the characters view as their personal anthem and often sing. Many song lyrics which sound great when sung sound distinctly less great when read. Even an otherwise powerful song like “Born in the USA” contains the line “I’m a cool rocking Daddy in the USA.” Not to mention “da doo ron ron ron” and “gabba gabba hey.” However… the song lyrics were still distinctly not great.

But overall, I enjoyed the book a lot. All else aside, this reminded me of being sixteen and reading urban fantasies by people like Emma Bull and Charles de Lint, and how exciting it was to see magic in a city. That sort of fantasy is less popular nowadays, replaced by “My vampire/angel/zombie boyfriend” and “I kick vampire/angel/zombie ass” novels, which have different conventions and of which I’m less fond. Tripping to Somewhere is old school in a way that feels new and fresh.

Feel free to put spoilers in comments.

Tripping to Somewhere. Only $5.99 on Kindle, and well worth it.
I re-read these recently, before the internet suddenly took notice of a bizarre interview with Sheri S. Tepper from 2008, in which she ranted about how people she doesn't like (including all mentally ill people) ought to be declared "not-human" and lose all rights, said that horror writers are evil, and seemed unaware of the fact that India is a democracy.

Yes. Tepper is very, very weird. I don't just mean politically. My own interest in her reading can be nicely summed up in this review: For those of you who have never read anything by Sheri S. Tepper, the thing about Sheri S. Tepper is that almost every one of her books is a Very Special Episode about Eco-Feminism Plus Some Other Stuff Sheri Tepper Really Wants To Talk About, As Filtered Through Enormous Amounts of Crack.

I was always in it for the crack; I stopped reading Tepper when the lecture-to-crack ratio got too high. I first read these in high school, and the first book of each of the three series has remained on my comfort re-read list. (The sequels get increasingly weird and incoherent, but the first books all more or less stand on their own.)

In the world of the True Game, some people have psychic powers, which they mostly use to “game” (fight wars and politick) against each other. If you like RPGs and intricate systems of magic powers, complete with charts and costumes and cool names like Oneiromancer, Elator, and Bonedancer, this series may well appeal to you too. I am certain that people have made it into an RPG system, if it wasn’t one to begin with. Tepper seems to realize this, because at one point someone asks why there’s all the formal names for everything, and someone else replies, “Because ‘sorceror’s spell seven!’ sounds more impressive than ‘I’m going to smash your sorcerer!’”

The Mavin books are about a female shapeshifter. I wasn’t all that into them (incoherence with rape) but the bits where Mavin learns to shapeshift are pretty cool. Oh, speaking of rape: any given Tepper novel is likely to have some. I think the Jinian books don't, though they may have some rape threats. The Peter series has one off-page rape, described in one line and so non-explicitly that I missed it when I was thirteen, and assumed the thing Peter didn't want to talk about was some sort of torture. (But while I'm on the subject, beware of Tepper's Beauty, which sucks you in with a charming fairy-tale first third, and then suddenly turns into RAPEFEST.)

The Peter books (King’s Blood Four, Necromancer Nine, Wizard’s Eleven) concern a boy in a boarding school for boys whose Talents haven’t shown up yet. It flew waaaaay over my head, when I read it at thirteen, that Peter was having an affair with one of his schoolmasters. The latter is, of course, a villain, and I wish it was only because of the pedophilia, but I think Tepper equated that with being gay. (The affair is consensual; the rape comes later.) Later Tepper seems to have forgotten all about this, because Peter acts very virginal indeed. In any case, they are a lively farrago of powers, battles, shapeshifting, rescues, kidnappings, and investigating the origins of Talents and the world.

They are the most coherent of the series, which isn’t saying all that much. Characters appear and vanish in a remarkably unexplicated manner. My favorite moment of that is when Peter’s long-lost mother makes her first appearance when she abruptly shows up in the middle of a dungeon, performs magic that does not match at all with the systems we’ve seen previously, knits two animals into existence who then transform into guys who then do stuff and then are never mentioned again, and suddenly isn’t there any more.

The best book is Jinian Footseer, in which a girl with no apparent Talent is raised by a bunch of old ladies who also have no apparent Talents, but teach her seemingly small and harmless spells. It slowly transforms from domestic fantasy to pure fairy-tale, complete with riddles and talking beasts, and then back to fantasy again, with clever rationalized (for fantasy) explanations of all the fairy-tale elements. That hangs together as a single story better than any of the others, and is still worth reading.

The second book is fine but less memorable, and the conclusion, which also concludes the whole series, is completely bizarre and features an ending which accomplished the feat of being simultaneously weird, stupid, and creepy: aliens come down and announce that they gave everyone powers but everyone misused them, so they’re taking them back now. Without magic powers, there can be no war! But they’re leaving one single magic power intact, because it will be essential to the planet’s peaceful future: the ability to foresee whether or not a newborn will turn out to be a sociopath, so that they can be murdered at birth if they are. Infanticide, just the recipe for a happy ending!

Despite the terrible series ending, I still enjoy Jinian Footseer and King’s Blood Four. They undoubtedly have the nostalgia factor working for them, but if you like psychic kids, pulp D&D adventuring, and fairy-tales, you might like these. They have comparatively little preaching, except for a hammer-to-head drugs are bad message that shows up in later books, and a hilarious bit in King’s Blood Four in which it is pointed out that the world is SO UNJUST that the very language has no words or concepts for “right,” “wrong,” “correct,” “justice,” etc. But if you value your sanity, avoid the last book. Jinian Star-Eye is the one with the “infanticide yay!” conclusion.

The True Game

Jinian Footseer

Song Of Mavin Manyshaped
A YA novel about Tessa, a fourteen-year-old white girl stuck in a thinly disguised American Osho (Rajneesh) ashram, complete with sexually predatory Indian guru and a whole bunch of white followers eagerly donning Indian names and other scraps from a culture they know nearly nothing about. Tessa’s mother is a long-time spiritual magpie who thinks she’s finally found her destined home, and her father is long gone and completely unavailable. Tessa seeks solace in the arms of a twenty-year-old pothead who does odd jobs for the ashram, whom I would also call a sexual predator except that “predator” suggests some capability for planning, who has sex with her, gets her high, and exposes her to friends who try to rape her.

Having lived in a similar ashram* (thankfully with a guru who was dead and hadn’t had sex with his followers when he was alive), I can vouch for the accurate portrayal of followers eagerly giving over all decisions and thought to a higher authority, mindless cultural appropriation, people given spiritual authority over others exercising it to break up relationships just because they can, and the petty smallness of a life in which even the tiniest sign of interest from the guru is earthshaking, and no other concerns matter.

*I’m sure some ashrams are great, or at least not creepy and cultlike. Mine wasn’t great. Neither was Rajneesh’s, whose Oregon branch was shut down and several arrests were made for deliberately infecting a salad bar with salmonella. Personally, if I was looking for a great ashram, I would avoid ones mostly populated by white folk, or at the very least ask myself why Indians seem to be either avoiding it or are not invited.

The book itself was a bit meh. I would have liked more comedy or more intensity or more punch from the ashram setting. The most vivid portions were Tessa’s drug trips. Despite the obligatory “drugs are bad” conclusion, the trips themselves sounded awesome. They read like writing them up was by far the most fun Blank had while writing the book.

Thanks, [ profile] octopedingenue!

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