Christina Vasilevski

Writer/Editor for Content Strategy and User Experience

Need a Crash Course on Web Copy? Try “Nicely Said”

Nicely Said: Writing for the Web with Style and PurposeTitle: Nicely Said: Writing for the Web with Style and Purpose
Authors: Nicole Fenton and Kate Kiefer Lee
Publisher: New Riders Publishing
Rating: 4 out of 5
Format: Print

Writing can be a daunting prospect for many people, and the way that the internet has changed both how we write and how we read can make it even more so. But the realities of the modern marketing world demand writing that’s user-friendly and easy to understand. What’s a verbophobe to do?

Well, a good place to start is by reading Nicely Said: Writing for the Web with Style and Purpose by Nicole Fenton and Kate Kiefer Lee. I’ve been writing for years in the context of websites and content management, and this is one of the most concise, thorough, and welcoming guides to online writing and editing that I’ve come across.

What really makes this book special is that it follows its own advice. All throughout, one of the most constant pieces of advice in it is to write in a friendly way that’s similar to how you would talk – and this book does that! A lot of writing and style guides take on a more authoritative tone, and sound intimidating as a result. This one doesn’t.

Nicely Said also imagines building a website from the ground up. It even uses an imaginary small business as a recurring example throughout the book of how to write and organize a website: Shortstack Books, an independent bookstore.

As the book discusses the process of doing research, writing mission statements, creating a wire frame, implementing consistent vocabulary, and even writing error messages and terms of service pages, it uses the example of Shortstack Books as its frame of reference. Although it’s a familiar technique, it works — it grounds the advice and keeps the topic from getting too abstract.

The book also includes case studies from several online companies like Etsy and Google, and provides several examples of good and bad web copy so you know what to do and what to avoid. What makes my particular editorial heart sing is that there are multiple chapters devoted to the topic of revision and workflow — processes that ordinarily strike non-communication-types with dread.

The only problem I have with Nicely Said is that it takes for granted the way the web works in 2013 and 2014. This book risks sounding dated very quickly.

However, that’s a small caveat. This is an extremely useful resource for people in a variety of contexts, like web developers and designers, not just writers and editors.

Book Review: Saga Volume 3

Saga, Volume 3Title: Saga Volume 3
Author: Brian K. Vaughan
Illustrator: Fiona Staples
Publisher: Image Comics
Format: Print
Rating: 4 out of 5

Note: spoilers ahead for both this and the previous volumes. You have been warned.

Saga is one of those stories where I gobble the installments up like goldfish crackers — chowing down on handful after handful, aware that I’m nearing the end of the current supply. And then, when I do hit that end, I think to myself: that’s it?

When I read volumes 1 and 2 last year, they were so fresh and inventive that they kept me in a perpetual state of delight. I would make assumptions about the world of the story only to have those assumptions upended, like so:

  • This comic features people with horns and people with wings. That means that this must be an angels vs. demons kind of thing going on, right? Oh, and there’s a star-crossed couple, one angel and one demon, who have a kid, the existence of which poses a threat to both civilizations – does that mean it will be like Demonology 101? Cool! I love fantasy stories!
  • Oh wait, there’s an intergalactic war going on. That means it’s space opera, not a fantasy!
  • Oh wait, there’s this weird guy who looks human except for the fact that he’s got a TV for a head. Um…is this still space opera, or are we veering into satire?
  • Oh, and there’s an assassin who’s half-woman, half spider, and there’s a planet devoted solely to prostitution, and then there are…romance novels? And ghosts who wander around, showing off their viscera? And now there’s a giant talking cat who can only say something when it knows you’re lying?
  • Sweet lord, what the hell kind of world is this taking place in? And where can I get more?

Part of the fun of the first two volumes was seeing my SF reading protocols get tossed up and hurled at the wall to see what would bounce off and what would stick. Of course, there are the human elements of the story — Hazel’s retrospective narration, the amazing single-page panels used for emphasis, and Marko and Alana’s love story at the heart of it all.

But the third volume dispenses with a lot of the stuff-to-the-wall-throwing and instead tries to force a confrontation between all of the various parties at play — Marko and Alana’s family vs. Prince Robot vs. Gwendolyn and The Will and Slave Girl/Sophie. At first, I was looking forward to these confrontations. But then they got cut short and resolved too easily to be satisfying, like when Gwendolyn finally came face-to-face with Marko, her ex-fiance. I felt like this story was promising me I would climb Mount Everest, only to drop me off at the base of The Alps instead – still cool, but not as an extreme a trip as I was promised.

There’s a definite sense of table-setting coming into play with this volume. You’ve got the  introduction of the journalists chasing the clues that the government has hidden about Alana, Marko, and Hazel; the introduction of The Will’s sister; the kind-of-tacked-on burgeoning romance between The Will and Gwendolyn; and the introduction  of The Circuit, some kind of underground entertainment network that’s really an open secret.

This is all part-and-parcel with the fact that this is an ongoing series. The end is probably far away, since Brian K. Vaughan has stated that it will run longer than Y: The Last Man, which ran for 60 issues. My bet is that in the coming issues (which resume publication this month), Marko and Alana will join The Circuit and use their broadcasts as a way to inform the world about their relationship (and their daughter) by framing it as an anti-war allegory. But that is just what I want to happen. Staples and Vaughan have been very good at confounding my expectations so far.

That said, there are moments of beauty and grace in this volume, like when Sophie/Slave Girl and Lying Cat (Oh my god, can I tell you how much I love Lying Cat? I even have a shirt with her face on it!) share a moment on a hillside, with the former telling a series of truths and then a lie, only to have the latter interrupt with her trademark exclamation. Or when Marko’s mother, Klara, shares a conspiratorial moment with Oswald Heist over a board game. There are so many good moments here.

The problem, to me, is that these things are moments, not the sustained awesomeness of the opening volumes – the first of which rightly won the 2013 Hugo for Best Graphic Story. On it’s own, I would give Saga Volume 3 only 3 out of 5 stars. In context with the preceding volumes, though, I’m bumping my rating one higher. Here’s hoping that the next volume will get over the bump in the rode that this volume represents.

Book Review: Tea: History, Terroirs, Varieties

Tea: History, Terroirs, VarietiesTitle: Tea: History, Terroirs, Varieties
Authors: Kevin Gascoyne, Francois Marchand, Jasmin Desharnais, and Hugo Americi
Publisher: Firefly Books
Format: Print
Rating: 3 out of 5

About 2 months ago, I wrote a post about how much I enjoyed drinking tea. I framed it then as a lark, a bit of humour. But it’s surprising how complex this topic is once you learn to break out of the world of supermarket bags. Saying you like white tea is similar to saying you like white wine: a good start, but nowhere near specific enough. Riesling or Chardonnay? Bai Mu Dan or Bai Hao Yin Zhen? And even a question like that only skims the surface – the manner and location of the harvest matters just as much as the cultivar.

This is something that Tea: History, Terroirs, Varieties covers in depth. Written by members of the Camellia Sinensis Tea House, this book is a guide to understanding tea in all its variety, from type to location to tasting methods.

Interestingly, rather than giving a breakdown of teas according to type, book instead divides the topic up by history and region. Chapters talking about the history of tea cultivation lead into ones about tea tasting, production, and culture according to region. This is then followed up by a brief section about the art of tea tasting and a (rather disposable) chapter containing haute-cuisine recipes. A look at the science and nutrition of tea closes out the book. Overall, it’s a well-rounded discussion of the topic.

However, I feel ambivalent about this book. It tries to split the difference between discussing tea as a product and tea as a status object, which are wildly divergent approaches. I wanted to learn more about the various cultivars of tea, and which flavours are associated with each cultivar. But the writing often reads like it was meant for the kind of lifestyle magazine you’d find tucked into the back pocket of an airplane seat. This is especially true in the one-on-one interviews with various tea testers and growers that are sprinkled throughout the book. The questions are softballs (“What is your favourite tea?”) and the answers sound calculated to offend as few people as possible (“In each family of teas there are varieties of a superior quality. They are the ones I prefer.”).

This feeling is reinforced by Tea‘s coffee-table aesthetic. The photography, layout, and production quality are all lovely, and I recognize that a book like this needs a strong aesthetic impact. However, I think it would have been a more satisfying reference guide if it included the following:

  • A glossary of tea terms separate from the main body of the text – the book contains a “tasting lexicon” of terms that are often used to describe the taste of tea, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg compared to all of the specialized language this book contains
  • A more comprehensive index (eg: a gaiwan and a zhong are the same thing, but the index only lists zhong and doesn’t include any sort of cross-reference between both terms)
  • A list of popular/common cultivars

There are some fascinating tidbits in the corners of the text that I’d love to read entire books about, like the speculative bubble surrounding sheng pu’er and the colonial background behind Indian tea production. There is an awful lot to learn about tea, and I’m just getting started. But I really wanted some more meat than what I actually got.

Book Review: Talking About Detective Fiction by P.D. James

Talking About Detective Fiction by P.D. JamesTitle: Talking About Detective Fiction
Author: P.D. James
Publisher: Vintage Canada
Format: Print
Rating: 3 out of 5

A few weeks ago, I read an old article by Jo Walton on Tor.com about reading protocols for SF. I’ve been aware of the concept of “reading protocols” for some time, but this article, simply by giving that concept a name, has been very useful.

Since then, I’ve wondered about how exposure to one genre affects one’s perceptions of other, different genres. Put simply: how easy is it to switch from one set of protocols to another? Are there shortcuts you can use to learn new protocols quickly?

That’s what I wanted to know when I read Talking About Detective Fiction by P.D. James. Part history of the genre, part inquiry into detective story tropes, and part memoir, this book seemed like the shortcut I was looking for. Like speculative fiction, mysteries often follow a set of conventions that provide the reader with familiarity, comfort, and structure. Also like speculative fiction, mysteries have tropes that typify the genre to outsiders yet are seen as dated and stale by insiders. Space aliens don’t carry ray-guns anymore, and the butler didn’t always do it.

So, what have I learned about detective fiction from this book? Lots – mostly that my own perceptions about it are indeed out of date. I learned that “Golden Age” mystery novels often sacrificed plausibility in favour of ingenuity. I learned about how the post-war climates of the US and the UK contributed to making “hard boiled” and “murder mystery” fiction such divergent subgenres. I learned that the “Watson” figure long ago transformed from a walking exposition receptacle into something more nuanced.

Most surprisingly, I learned that “Golden Age” mystery was relatively welcoming to women writers. James devotes an entire chapter to Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, and Margery Allingham, examining their differences, similarities, and legacies. In contrast, it’s hard for me to think of four female science fiction writers (even ones who relied on male pseudonyms like Alice Sheldon/James Tiptree Jr) who wielded such influence during SF’s own Golden Age, although I would be happy to be proven wrong.

Has this book given me all of the necessary protocols to appreciate detective fiction on its own merits? I doubt it – there are large parts of my brain that need to be rewired to fully appreciate the intricacy of the genre. But this book is as good a start as any.

Book Review: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. JemisinTitle: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
Author: N.K. Jemisin
Publisher: Orbit
Format: Print
Rating: 5 out of 5

Yeine Darre is the daughter of a barbarian chieftain of the Darre people in the backwater continent of the High North. But she’s also the daughter of the sole child of Dekarta Arameri, the de facto ruler of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. The Arameri family, from which her mother hailed, has ruled the world for over 2000 years, since the God War resulted in the death of Enefa, the Betrayer, and the triumph of Itempas, the Skyfather, over Nahadoth, the Nightlord.

Of course, that rule has been helped immeasurably by the fact that Itempas gave them control over the remaining gods and godlings he vanquished. It was unprecedented when Yeine’s mother, Kinneth, abdicated such power in favour of eloping with her father. Now, mere months after Kinneth’s death, Yeine has been summoned by Dekarta to the capital of Sky and been declared an heir to the throne. In a world where men and women control gods, Yeine learns that nothing – including herself – is what it seems.

I’ve been in a bit of a reading funk lately. Perhaps it’s the winter weather. Perhaps it’s been all the slush reading – which I love doing even if it takes up a lot of headspace. I don’t know. But after I finished The Troop last month, I just couldn’t stick with a book. I’d heard great things about The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson, but didn’t read anything beyond the first 20 pages. Then, motivated by a recent piece on NPR by Amal el-Mohtar, I tried reading The Corn King and the Spring Queen by Naomi Mitchison, but I got only about 10% in before the weird pacing issues and sexual politics got to me.

So when I picked up The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms a few days ago after it had been sitting on my shelf for over a year, it was a thunderbolt. Beautiful prose? Check. Interesting changes in point of view and non-chronological structure? Check. Lots of political machinations and Rubiks-cube-level plotting? Check. Goddamned amazing worldbuilding? Check, check, check. Transcendant, moving climax? Check. (And oh yeah – some pretty steamy love scenes. Although I don’t normally talk about that in my reviews, consider this book a definite check.)

I leafed through the first pages a few days ago to see whether it was speaking to me or not. But I didn’t start officially reading it until yesterday – and I finished it in less than 12 hours.

Let that sink in for a minute. After not having the mental focus to read anything longer than a short story in over a month, I read all 400+ pages in a single day. That’s how good this book is.

I’ve been wanting to read this for a long time, ever since I first heard about Jemisin through the Writing Excuses podcast. I was really interested in hearing about how she wanted to question fantasy tropes that reinforce a white male ideal, and this book succeeds in spades. From the critiques about colonialism, race, and power, to the true story behind this world’s religion, almost everything in this book forces readers to re-examine their expectations about fantasy worlds and protagonists. And aside from the concrete, intricate worldbuilding, the prose is absolutely lovely. It’s mythic and propulsive and the same time – quite the mean feat, since the prose of so many other fantasy books with the same ideas often take a turn towards the turgid.

Gods, I can’t praise this book well enough. It’s just – go, go read it. Don’t wait over a year like I did.

Book Review: The Troop by Nick Cutter

The Troop by Nick Cutter

The Troop by Nick Cutter

Title: The Troop
Author: Nick Cutter
Publisher: Gallery Books (Simon & Schuster)
Format: Print
Rating: 3 out of 5

Note: I was given an advanced review copy of this book by the publisher.

Imagine the savage survivalism of Lord of the Flies merged with the creeping bio-engineered dread of The Stand. Mix in the five personality archetypes of The Breakfast Club (albeit a boys-only version) and you get Nick Cutter’s (aka Craig Davidson’s) new horror novel The Troop – with all of the positives and negatives that implies.

Scoutmaster Tim Rigg has taken his 5-member Boy Scout troop on a 3-day camping trip to Falstaff Island, a small island off the coast of PEI. There’s the jock, Kent Jenks, son of the local police chief; the wild child, Ephraim Elliott; the sensible everyman, Max Kirkwood; the creepy loner, Shelley Longpre; and finally the nerd, Newt Thornton, last in the pecking order. Scoutmaster Tim, who is the town doctor back home, has high hopes for 3 days of hiking, learning, and otherwise hearty outdoor activity.

But there’s another person coming to the island. A man who carries inside him a genetically-engineered horror the likes of which the world is unprepared for. And he’s hungry – so very hungry.

So, let’s get the literary clone-work out of the way. Like many people, I had to read Lord of the Flies in high school, and absolutely hated it. My opinion as a teenager was that the whole descending-into-savagery thing would probably have been completely avoided if there were at least one female in the whole group. Growing up and learning about what occupies the minds of teenaged boys, I have to amend that opinion somewhat – but my absolute dislike of that book has not lessened. (And if you’re wondering, I couldn’t stand Catcher in the Rye that much either.)

At first, I was nervous that The Troop would travel down that same everyone-turns-into-animals-because-Man-is-the-real-monster path. This was especially worrisome in the first half of the book, since the author tries so hard to establish the meanness and social hierarchy of the boys. With the exception of Newt, the requisite fat nerd, the rest of them are cardboard cutouts: Kent is a bully, Ephraim is supposedly angry (I say “supposedly” because although we’re told an awful lot about how angry he is and how he always starts fights, he doesn’t actually act violently until he’s pushed), Max is friendly and average but resolute, and Shelley is your standard-issue sociopath-in-training.

However, once the true menace of the book is revealed, the characters display more psychological depth than I expected. There are some predictable turns here (especially regarding Shelley), but the addition of Tim, who believes he can help the sick man who’s wandered into their midst, adds a new dimension to the story. In Doctor/Scoutmaster Tim, not only do we see a man blinded by his own confidence in his abilities, but we also see the boys’ reaction to that blindness – and the lack of trust in the adult world that results.

Now that’s interesting.

Less interesting, but still helpful, are the interstitial pieces of text showing how the bio-engineered parasite came to be, and the political and cultural aftermath of the outbreak. They provide context and help the novel’s pacing, but I think they strip the real threat (a genetically-modified tapeworm meant to promote weight loss but secretly developed as a biological weapon) of some of its mystique. They do contribute to the novel’s ambiguous ending, however.

Other than that, the book contains some unusual and truly repulsive body horror. I have a pretty strong stomach, so when I say that, I mean it. I found it particularly hard to handle the scene where Ephraim cuts himself in order to remove the parasite from his body.

Overall, I thought this book was okay, but I wish more time had been spent on character development, especially in the rather creaky opening.

Up next: The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson

Book Review: Blood: The Stuff of Life by Lawrence Hill

Blood: The Stuff of LifeTitle: Blood: The Stuff of Life
Author: Lawrence Hill
Publisher: House of Anansi
Format: Print
Rating: 3 out of 5

A few weeks ago I was in the hospital waiting for a doctor to examine my stomach and declare with authority why it was hurting so damn much. It was a Saturday night and no walk-in clinics were open, so my husband and I took the bus to the closest ER. Part of the triage involved giving a blood sample, so I did my standard routine when it came time for the nurse to stick me with the needle, which goes something like this:

  1. Don’t look. Look as far away in the opposite direction of the blood-giving arm as you can.
  2. Make noise, or focus on existing noise, so as to avoid hearing the small suctiony sound of your blood going into the vial. (Don’t scoff. You really can hear your blood entering the vial if the room is small enough. It is not pleasant.)
  3. Mentally count off the clicks you hear as each full vial is switched out for an empty one.
  4. Wait for the sensation of the needle being withdrawn, and breathe a sigh of relief.

Except this time, #4 took an awful long time in coming. The nurse asked one of her colleagues, “Do we need 2 vials or  3?” and just sat there waiting. The needle was still in my arm. Where was the blood going? Would it fountain up out of the needle end?

When the nurse got her answer and took the final vial of blood away, she also tossed a small flexible tube into a biohazard container. It was clear, and full of my blood. “Oh, it’s okay,” she said, “it’s just a teaspoonful.”

I felt slightly sick at the thought. And thus did I realize that I needed to take Blood by Lawrence Hill off the TBR pile and read it post-haste.

Blood is the latest installment in the CBC’s Massey Lectures, and it’s about as far away as one can get from the previous year’s subject matter by Neil Turok. Blood is a substance that is both physically and socially complex, and Hill does his utmost to examine each of the social and physical realities surrounding it: race, vampirism, menstruation, religion, identity, transfusions, sports scandals and doping, disease, citizenship, murder, vengeance, and more.

It’s a tricky balancing act to pull off, to marry the scientific and the sociological like that. And while Hill does do an adequate job of balancing on that tightrope, there are more than a few places where he slips and falls.

I think this is most apparent in the prose style itself. Blood is a topic full of nuance, but Hill’s writing is so portentous and repetitive that it feels like he’s struggling under sheer mythic weight of the thing he’s writing about. Here’s an example of what I mean:

It’s an awfully seductive fluid. When it leaves the body, it’s a big deal. People might die. People might be accused of attempted murder, or worse. Even when it is supposed to spill – think of menstrual blood, for example, or of the blood from the broken hymen of a virgin on a wedding night that unfolds according to all the ancient rules – it has power and significance. Maybe it is impure. Maybe it could damage you. Maybe that menstrual blood could spoil food or rob a man of his hunting power. Or maybe it is the blood of the virgin, suggestive of innocence and protection. In addition, blood acquires holy significance in the world’s pre-eminent religions. Christians consider Christ’s blood to be sacred, and imagine that they drink of it when they lift the cup of holy wine to their lips. Judaism and Islam have intricate rules about how animals are to be bled and how blood must be absent from food.

I didn’t really put my finger on what bothered me so much about his style of writing until I typed the above excerpt out. Forget the fact that he bounces around madly from murder to menstruation to sex to religion and back again. Focus instead on the digressions he makes, and the way he describes things. It can’t just be “blood from a woman’s wedding night,” but “blood from the broken hymen of a virgin on a wedding night that unfolds according to all the ancient rules.” It can’t just be “wine”, but “holy wine”, as if you’d use any other kind in a church and instead just go down to the corner store for a medium-bodied red to use for the Eucharist.

In other words, his writing doesn’t let the topic speak for itself. It spells things out to a painful degree, and in the process, fetishizes something that has already been fetishized enough. Considering that this book’s goal is to unpack a lot of the unspoken assumptions behind the idea of blood, we need less of this mystic attitude, not more.

I’m conflicted about this book in other ways as well, as there was at least one glaring factual error that I found (in the section about Harry Potter, oddly enough – aren’t there any editors at House of Anansi who have read the series?), and some truly dismissive attitudes about adolescent depression and self-cutting, such as this little gem:

Just as many young people are drawn to vampire culture, many are also drawn to cutting themselves as form of controlled self-abuse. Experts theorize that cutting among young girls is not generally the expression of suicidal impulses, but rather a way of managing pain and anxiety. The vampiric seduction is a private act, as is the act of drawing out one’s blood. People tend to get over their vampiric obsessions as they emerge from adolescence, as do most girls who have been drawn to cutting.

The vampiric attack is irreversible. Once you’ve gone over to the dark side, there is no coming back. You do get to live forever, but no longer as a human. Cutting, however, allows for more control. Who will see the marks, which you can cover up with clothing? How seriously are you to be hurt, by losing a little blood? For some, perhaps, cutting focuses one’s pain in the body, instead of in the psyche. But it is temporary. And most adolescents grow out of it.

Is this for real? “Oh, cutting isn’t that serious, it’s just an adolescent phase. How much harm can it do, anyway?” I doubt that it’s a coincidence that this passage comes right on the heels of a discussion about the Twilight series. Gee, I wonder which major demographic most commonly cuts themselves? And does there happen to be any overlap between that demographic and the demographic responsible for making Twilight a runaway success? Ah well, never mind. Those things are just phases. Let’s give them a cursory discussion just to say we talked about it and move on.

The more I think about this book and what it chose to focus on versus what it chose to skim, the more frustrated I get. And it makes me sad, because in many ways, Blood‘s observations about identity and race are trenchant and well-thought-out (which shouldn’t be a surprise, given Hill’s own ancestry). But it’s missteps like those above that get my blood boiling.

Up next: The Troop by Nick Cutter

Book Review: Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis

Till We Have Faces by C.S. LewisTitle: Till We Have Faces:  A Myth Retold
Author: C.S. Lewis
Publisher: N/A (pirated copy)
Format: eBook
Rating: 5 out of 5

Despite his importance to the fantasy genre, I’ve never been a big reader of C.S. Lewis. I read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe just a single time as a child, and the story was so un-engaging that I promptly forgot what happened. Subsequent attempts to read the book led to me stalling right around the time Lucy encountered Mr. Tumnus.

Add to that The Problem of Susan, and it’s easy to see why I’ve been wary of his books.

However, I love stories that reinterpret classic myths, and this particular interpretation was analyzed wonderfully by Karen Burnham and Karen Lord, so Till We Have Faces leapt onto my TBR pile.

And boy, am I glad that it did: I am not ashamed to call this book a masterpiece.

Orual, the veiled queen of Glome, is old, alone, and approaching death. One thing she is not, though, is pious. She has seen the gods for the charlatans they are, and wants the whole world to know what she knows: that they are cruel, and delight in taking only the most precious of things from humanity, leaving nothing in return. Such a thing was her sister, Psyche. Years after Psyche’s ruinous disappearance, Orual wants to tell her side of the story and hold the gods accountable. And so she writes:

Orual is the eldest daughter of the king of Glome, a small kingdom near Greece that worships the dark goddess Ungit and her son the Brute. Orual is so ugly that it is immediately understood by her lout of a father that the only value that she’ll bring to the kingdom is to be educated as a man would – her younger sisters Redival and Psyche are far better marriage material. As a child, Orual is happy because despite her ugliness, she has people who love her: the Fox, a Greek slave who is her tutor and her father’s most valued advisor, and Psyche, who is gifted with both great physical and spiritual beauty.

However, when drought and plague strike the kingdom and rumours spread that Psyche is being worshipped for her beauty, it is taken as blasphemy of the highest form. Despite the philosophical interpretations of the Fox (who says that Ungit is really a debased version of she whom the Greeks call Aphrodite), the high priest of Ungit decrees that she must be sacrificed on a mountainside to the Brute.

Orual learns of this and takes ill. Upon her recovery, she resolves to find Psyche’s remains to give her a proper burial – Antigone was able to do at least that much, she reasons. However, upon her journey to the sacrifice site, she finds out that her sister is alive and well. Orual is shocked and convinced her sister has gone insane – what Orual sees as a sprig of wild berries Psyche sees as a feast in a palace. And how can Psyche, who is so beautiful, love something as ugly as the Brute? Has Psyche lost all sense of sisterly duty?

Who, really, is in the right? And why should the gods, who are powerful, make such playthings of humans, who are weak? Orual resolves to test her sister’s newfound happiness, with disastrous results for both of their souls.

For a long time, Lewis was dissatisfied with the classical story of Psyche and Cupid. Nothing about it – Psyche’s sisters’ jealousy, Psyche’s own gullibility and disobedience towards her husband – made any sort of sense to him. Till We Have Faces was his attempt to create fully-fleshed, believable characters whose actions were consonant with those of the original myth.

Lewis succeeds in doing this by making Orual a real piece of work. She may be physically ugly, but she makes up for it with a keen intellect and a good sword hand. However, she’s also desperately lonely and needy, unwilling to be honest with anyone about her true motivations, least of all herself. Orual’s insistence that Psyche look upon her own husband’s face is not only a test of loyalty, but also a desperate gambit on Orual’s part to make her sister realize the truth about her life on the mountain.

I really don’t know how well I can describe the book after this point. Both sisters pay a terrible price for their actions. Psyche disappears. Orual becomes queen and rules successfully for decades. But deep inside she’s a thornbush of guilt. It is only at the end of her life that she’s willing to delve into the reasons why she originally forced Psyche’s hand.

In fact, it’s easy to see that the series of visions she has (which are chock-full of Jungian imagery) before her death leads to a conversion experience. C.S. Lewis was known for writing extensively on Christian themes, so it’s interesting to note that he manages to lend a Christian veneer to Orual’s experience, despite the fact that she worships the gods of ancient Greece.

Considering conversations in the last year about whether female characters should be likeable, Till We Have Faces is a timely book to read. In many ways Orual is not likeable – she’s needy and manipulative, and convinced that the sacrifices she forces other characters to make are made for the right reasons, rather than for her own happiness. But within the confines of the story, the choices do make sense, especially when viewed through the funhouse mirror that is Orual’s mind.

What I mean is that more people should be reading this book. After hearing Burnham and Lord talk about it, I was desperate to read it myself. But you know what? It appears to be out of print. I couldn’t buy it through my Kobo. I couldn’t even find a copy of it through the Toronto Public Library, which quite an is impressive feat. Scanning Abebooks resulted in finding copies that were a bit out of my price range. So when my friend sent me a pirated PDF version of this book, I threw up my hands and said “good enough.”

Let me repeat that: I have a huge library of eBooks. Hundreds of books and magazines that were purchased legally, or gotten for free through otherwise legitimate means. I am generally against eBook piracy. Yet I was willing to read a pirated version of this book, because it was otherwise so hard for me to find.

Lewis’s Space Trilogy just got a handsome new reissue from HarperCollins for its 75th anniversary. Of course, I wish that Till We Have Faces was still in print, but the 60th anniversary of its original publication is only a few years away. Will anyone else be rooting for a new print edition to celebrate?

Up next: Blood: The Stuff of Life by Lawrence Hill

Book Review: Hawkeye Vol 1: My Life as a Weapon

Hawkeye Volume 1: My Life as a WeaponTitle: Hawkeye, Volume 1: My Life as a Weapon
Author: Matt Fraction
Illustrators: David Aja, Javier Pulido, and Alan Davis
Format: Print
Publisher: Marvel
Rating: 3 out of 5

Despite my enjoyment of superhero-comic-inspired movies, I’m not a huge person for the comics themselves.  However, the buzz surrounding the new Hawkeye series has been pretty hard to ignore – it’s been praised elsewhere for its verve and playfulness. This book collects the first 5 issues of the series, as well as a tie-in issue from Young Avengers.

Playfulness I will definitely give this volume, but otherwise I’m a poor judge when it comes to books like these. I was spoiled last year by the balls-to-the-wall gonzo beauty and emotional heft of Saga volumes 1 and 2 last year (I am so happy it won the Hugo), so this is a big change of pace.

My Life as a Weapon follows the lives of Clint Barton, the Avenger known as Hawkeye, and Kate Bishop, his protege also known as Hawkeye. The two take part in the usual superhero escapades – falling off of buildings, fighting gangsters, thwarting evil plots, covering their own asses when things go south, etc – but their adventures are distinguished by a refreshing focus on the small scale. Clint goes into a seedy little warehouse casino, and after bullying a gangster, rescues a dog (aka: Pizza Dog) caught in the crossfire. Clint’s attempt to buy a classic muscle car from a pretty redhead turns into an all-out car-chase against even more gangsters. And so forth.

What really separates this book, though, is its experimentation with panel layout and narrative. Perhaps the best example of this is in issue #3, the one with the car chase. As the images show the story happening in chronological order, the narration from Clint reveals that this is all a flashback, and provides commentary upon the events in reverse chronological order. Interspersed throughout are small circular callout panels with close-ups and descriptions of the variety of arrows that Hawkeye uses – arrows that, of course, will come into play as the chase ensues.

I think the Young Avengers tie-in issue at the end is the weakest part of the book. The shift in tone between it (straightforward superhero’s-journey stuff, with a helping of romance) and Hawkeye proper (arch and kinetic) is profound. Ultimately, colour me intrigued about the series; I’m particularly looking forward to the Pizza-Dog-centric issue #11 when Volume 2 rolls around.

Up next: Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis

Book Review: The Empress of Mars by Kage Baker

empress_of_mars_coverTitle: The Empress of Mars
Author: Kage Baker
Publisher: Tor
Format: Print
Rating: 4 out of 5

Life on Mars is hard. Although the British Arean Company promised wealth, growth, and a new life to all Martian settlers, once it found out that it couldn’t terraform (and profit from) the planet quickly enough, it pulled up roots and stranded those left behind without providing enough money for a return trip to Earth. Now the BAC’s presence on the planet consists of a skeleton crew of ineffectual bureaucrats.

Mary Griffith has been forced to make do in the aftermath. Formerly a botanist on the BAC’s payroll, she’s reinvented herself as the proprietor of The Empress of Mars, the closest thing that the entire planet has to a hotel, bar, restaurant, or welcome centre. The Empress of Mars is all about Mary’s attempts to keep a roof over her family’s head – attempts which rapidly gain steam when the discovery of a huge red diamond on her land rekindles interest in the red planet’s resources.

One of the hazy, oft-quoted rules of novel-writing is to avoid prologues. I don’t understand why, because they serve a purpose. The prologue for The Empress of Mars is absolutely astounding – here it is, in its entirety:

There were three Empresses of Mars.

The first one was a bar at the Settlement. The second was the lady who ran the bar, though her title was strictly informal, having been bestowed on her by the regular customers, and her domain extended no farther than the pleasantly gloomy walls of the only place you could get beer on the Tharsis Bulge.

The third one was the queen of England.

That’s it. Three paragraphs. But those paragraphs pack a powerful amount of information. They tell us about the geopolitical structure of this story’s universe – that England has managed to rebuild an empire, and that it has sole sovereignty over Mars. They tell us about the mindset of the people who are settling Mars right now – that they’re playful and informal, but also just really want a beer. They also tell us that life on Mars is a scarce one – there’s only one settlement, and only one bar.

However, this excerpt provides only a taste of what Kage Baker’s Mars is really like. You’ve got abandoned BAC employees like Mary and her colleague Manco Inca, a terraformer who has built a shrine to the Virgin of Guadeloupe in an underground cave. There’s Chiring, a Nepali journalist whose dispatches from the bar have greatly increased the circulation of The Kathmandu Post. There’s Brick, one of the planet’s many sturdy ice haulers. There’s also Eli De Wit, the lawyer who has come to broker the sale of Mary’s new diamond, and Mary’s daughter Alice, who has always hated living on Mars and sees Eli as her ticket off the planet.

One of the things I like about The Empress of Mars is its exploration of what life is like in the frontier of space. Baker references this explicitly through the character of Ottorino Vespucci (Reno for short), a dreamer who has come to Mars to seek his fortune – his time spent as a stuntman at a Wild West amusement park acts as  his chief frame of reference for living on the planet.

This is not new territory for science fiction. However, Baker’s taken great pains to depart from Golden-Age space opera in other ways, most notably in the ethnic, religious, and linguistic variety of her characters. As mentioned above, we’ve got Nepalis, Peruvians, and more. Americans speak English, but other characters speak a new language called PanCelt, while Ottorino speaks Italian. Interestingly, Christianity is no longer a dominant religion in human society, having been replaced in many respects by a New-Age form of goddess-worship. Mary’s tangles with the Ephesian Church make up one of the story’s many subplots.

And what fun they are! They all coalesce towards the end, but there’s a lovely shagginess to the way that all of the book’s various subplots – Mary’s new-found wealth from  her diamond, the marriages of two of her daughters, her dealings with the local clan of Irish medievalists – interact and converge. The plot here is solid, but the throughline of the book moves laterally in all sorts of ways. This is a refreshing change of pace from the vast majority of novels, where it feels like you could render the book on a graph. In some ways, the plot of The Empress of Mars defies easy categorization. But sometimes it’s really nice to have a book like that.

Up next: Cracklescape by Margo Lanagan – my 40th and final book review of 2012!