December 09, 2003

genre novels, specifically Paladin of Souls

Iíve spent most of my adult life reading fantasy, SF, mystery, romance. I used to say I could only read a story with a plot that pulled me along. But as I got more into writing fiction, it stopped working for me. Iíve had this feeling lately that reading a genre novel is like watching a sitcom or eating a Pop Tart. Fun enough but ultimately lacking any real nutritional value. Empty calories, empty hours. Which raises the question: how do you measure value in a novel? How do you measure it in a film or a TV show, for that matter? Why do we watch and read? Is it just to give enjoyment for the hours we spend with the book or in the movie theater? A smile, a tickle, a rollercoaster ride of emotional reactions, an adrenaline response to scary sequences, an endorphin rush when the protagonists triumph? Is it that simple? Sometimes maybe it is, and sometimes thatís enough. But isnít it better when you close the book and feels something more? As a writer, thatís what I would prefer. But what kind of something more? I tend to think itís about universality, about the writer touching me personally. I think this is why Iíve dropped most of my genre reading of late. Plot-heavy stories donít do that, they donít tend to move me as I read.

Wait a second, what am I talking about? When I closed the fantasy novel Finder (by Emma Bull) the tears ran down my cheeks and soaked my shirt. I walked around for days after reading Memory and Dream (by Charles de Lint) thinking about the artist and the artwork, how a creation can come to life and be something separate from the creatorís intention. In that novel, he makes the thought literal, but itís a good metaphor. After reading Elizabeth George, I often find myself contemplating the central murder and the emotions that led to the act, the power of hate or love to make us crazy.

I think the truth is that I canít stand superficial writing (though I somehow finished The Da Vinci Code, pulled along by the puzzle and the questionable but fascinating theology) but that good writing crosses platforms. For instance, thereís my love for Lois McMaster Bujold. I love how her novels start simple and gradually get more complex and tangled, like a classical symphony. I love how her characters are both funny and heartbreaking (human, in other words), I love how she lets those characters have ugly and sordid and difficult thoughts. I love her sense of structure and how within the context of a fast-paced SF novel, she manages to layer serious undertones about big life questions. It helps that she writes cleanly, clearly and often elegantly. She sometimes disappoints Ė of the last three Vorkosigan novels, I thought one was good and the other two were passable. But I just finished her latest fantasy novel, the second of a new series. Paladin of Souls. I loved it.

This novel, like the previous one, takes place in a land with five gods. The gods inhabit a few lucky (or unlucky) souls, who become god-touched and see the world differently. Like Moses on the Mount, theyíre given painfully difficult tasks. Not so great to be touched by the gods, it turns out. In this case, the mother of the Royesse (Queen) of Chalion, a character in the last novel, is suffering the aftermath of being god-touched twenty years ago. She was presumed insane for many years but after the events of Curse of Chalion she has been freed of that onus.

She starts out the book restless and bored, watched too closely by stuffy courtiers. She goes on a pilgrimage. Things happen. Demon bears and abductions and other sundry drama. But at its heart, the novel is about a dilemma, a Gordian knot of a dilemma. If one person lives, another must die. (More or less. Rather, more than that but you have to read it to see.) I was amused and amazed to realize that itís also a retelling of Sleeping Beauty, complete with a kiss to wake the sleeping prince. Yes, prince. Donít you love that? Combine all of this with lovely moments like the main character noting the incongruity of birdsong after the horror of a battle or giving a demon-ridden beast a good talking-to and youíve got me humming with pleasure as I read.

I finished the book two weeks ago. I still remember it with that level of detail. I still have this dreamlike feeling that I could, if I tried hard enough, enter the world between the covers of that book. I'm reluctant to return it to the library. It lingers with me, like Grand Marnier lingers on the tongue and in the back of your throat. A warming feeling. I think that's all I look for in a book. Easy to define, hard to pull off.

Posted by Tamar at December 9, 2003 08:31 PM