#REVIEW: DUNE (2021)

I think the most damning thing I can say about Dune is that even now that I’ve started typing I kind of want to bail on the idea of writing a review.

I am more of a Dune fan than most people but not very much of a Dune fan, if that makes any sense. I have read (and, to be clear, enjoyed) the original novel four or five times, maybe, most recently within the last couple of years, but have never picked up any of the sequels, a fact I consider rectifying every year and never do. Over the last few days I’ve seen lots of people pretending the novel is terribly complex and difficult to read and I don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s long, yeah, but it’s perfectly readable. I have not seen the 1980s original film, either, although my wife keeps threatening to make me watch it, and is probably going to ramp up her campaign now that we’ve watched this one. Frankly, were she not interested in seeing the new film, I wouldn’t have watched it.

It’s … meh.

It’s pretty. It’s got an awesome sense of scale; anytime you’re looking at something that’s supposed to be real real big there’s always something in frame to make it clear just how colossal whatever you’re looking at is. And if I stop typing right now, I can move on with the process of forgetting that I saw it, which I suspect will take all of a day or two. Even complaining about it for a few more paragraphs will give my dislike of the movie more weight than it deserves; I barely have the energy right now to point out the bits that I didn’t like. I mean … bullet points? And not worrying about complete sentences? Sure, let’s try that.

  • The casting is terrible. Every actor is either bad, distracting, or Timothée Challawhatever, who is not remotely heroic. Why is Drax in this?
  • Jessica always, always, always crying
  • Slooooooow-mooooooooo. If they’d cut half of the slow-motion they could have included some, like, context for this nonsense
  • This movie is very serious
  • The phrase “my boy!” is 50% of Jason Momoa’s dialogue and he somehow isn’t even pretty in this movie
  • Terrible pacing. At one point they cut away from a plane crash so we can have a brief scene of a fat man taking a bath.
  • The fat man isn’t even fat enough. I’m fatter than this guy. I want my levitation belt.
  • brown
  • The Gom Jabbar scene is the best part of the book and Chalamet looks like he’s struggling to hold off an orgasm for half of it
  • half the film is inappropriately-timed dream sequences
  • The Harkonnens are, like, cartoonishly evil on a level with Cobra Commander and Skeletor
  • bleh

I mean, see it if you want to, I suppose, it’s not going to, like, hurt or anything, unless you see it in a theater and get Covid-19, and man, dying because you went to see Dune has to be the worst way to go ever.

In which I quit and I don’t care

It is always a good sign when a Teacher Record Day begins with an email from the boss that says that he won’t be in the building that day. For those of you unschooled in the fine art of I ain’t sayin, but I’m sayin, what that means is “Get your shit done and go home,” and every single person on the staff knew it. So, because one thing I have done well this year is stay on top of my grading, I was out the door before 11:00, heading over to the comic shop and realizing just before entering the parking lot that the place wouldn’t even be open for another fifteen minutes.

So it was a good day at work today, is what I’m saying.

And then I got home and discovered a roaring argument going on on Twitter, where some dumb bastard who I won’t pile on any further had decided to posit that putting down a book that you weren’t enjoying instead of finishing it was some sort of character flaw, and I got to watch that person evolve their position as the entire fucking Internet fell on her head, from “this is offensive behavior” to “look at all these mean people” to “OMG get a life!!one!! why are you on Twitter if you don’t read litratcher,” and as far as I know she’s deleted her account by now, or at least she’s deleted from my account, as I’ve blocked her for preemptive stupidity and have already forgotten her stupid, stupid name.

And, look, I’m about the thousandth (literally) person to point this out, but no reader owes any author even a second of their time, much less their actual leisure time, and I will quit reading a book over the Goddamned font or the kerning if I feel like it. I already gave the author my money, which entirely ends their part in the transaction; they are not entitled to any more of my time than I choose to give them. There have been books I was not enjoying that I chose to force my way through; there have been books I gave up on in the last 10%, and there have been books that made it clear that I wanted nothing to do with them in the first few chapters. Unless I go out of my way to make sure the author knows I didn’t finish their book, there’s no universe where the author gets to be offended or even have a damn opinion on whether I finished their book.

(I feel the same way about my books. Once they’re in your hands they’re yours. I would love it if everyone who bought one of my books read and enjoyed them, and I’m sorry if you don’t, but there’s no way your opinion about– or treatment of– the book offends me.)

The fact that all this is happening while I’m trying to read Heinlein again is a fun lil’ coincidence, for sure. I have a bad relationship with this dude to begin with, but when I found out he was from Missouri I asked my wife to recommend another book (I’ve read Time Enough for Love and Starship Troopers and I think I’ve started and bailed on one more) and she handed me her copy of The Puppet Masters, and I made it to page 100 last night and we will see if I finish it or not. The dude was a creep and he wrote books about creeps. I’ll try and finish it tomorrow, since I’ve got the day off, but I’m not going to stress about it if I don’t, and since Heinlein’s ass is dead he doesn’t get to be offended either way.

#REVIEW: Queen of the Unwanted, by Jenna Glass

So, if you’re going to make a series switch from hardcover to softcover after the first book comes out, which already guarantees the books on my shelf aren’t going to match, and then you’re going to compound not-matchiness by making sure that the cover design changes radically from the hardcover to the softcover editions, the least you can do is make the softcover editions awesome. And I have to admit it: this has me considering buying the first book again in paperback just so that they match, since the new versions look so Goddamned good.

This is one of the tricky ones. If you look at Goodreads reviews for either this book or the first book in the series, called The Women’s War, you’ll notice that they’re … we’ll say messy. The basic premise of this series, boiled way down, is that a group of women, forced into prostitution when their husbands chose to divorce them or they were deemed unnecessary in other ways, manage to make a fundamental change to the way magic works in their world to give women more agency. To wit: among other things, sexual assault now causes little bursts of magic to be released that can kill the man performing the assault. Magic is explicitly gendered in this series, and without going too deep into the weeds there is women’s magic, men’s magic, and ungendered magic, and while women’s magic has historically been suppressed and devalued, this spell also kicks women’s magic into much higher gear, also creating a wellspring of feminine magic in the middle of what was formerly a wasteland that quickly becomes a feminist kingdom. The main characters are all royalty of some stripe or another, although several of them are former royalty who have been forced to be Abigails (their word for the prostitutes,) one way or another this book is not especially concerned with regular people.

It’s also not especially concerned with gay people, or trans people, or people of color (but more on that bit in a moment,) and two of the three most evil people in the series are the only fat person (we are reminded, Bomber-like, of his fatness every time he is mentioned) and a woman with a facial disfigurement. There is also a blind woman who is One of the Good Guys, but it’s made clear very quickly that she’s not only Not Really Blind, but she’s quickly offered a cure (which, to give some credit, she doesn’t take.)

You can probably imagine that this has caused some controversy, particularly for a book that is pretty explicit about being about high-fantasy feminism. Like, when you tell me that whether you’re male or female can not only affect what kind of magic you can perform but what kind of magic you can see (magic, in this world, is performed by combining “motes” of what are basically magical elements that float around in the world, and so certain kinds of magical motes are easier to find in some places or another, and part of what determines your skill as a mage is how many different kinds of motes you can perceive in the first place,) I’m going to immediately start wondering about how trans people fit into your world, and I’d almost rather you terf it out and go strictly biologically than completely ignore that trans people exist.

And even laying aside the identity and representation concerns, there’s a persistent feeling throughout reading this book that Jenna Glass really didn’t bother thinking super hard about the aspects of her worldbuilding that she wasn’t interested in. For a book that is all about shifting alliances between rival kingdoms, a book where the phrase trade agreements shows up on nearly every page, she doesn’t seem to have much of an idea of how trade works, unless her various principalities and kingdoms are unimaginably small. One of her kingdoms is repeatedly described as the sole source of iron and gems for all the surrounding kingdoms, for example, and you get the feeling that the “trade agreements” between these countries are sometimes over a few pounds of metal. It’s surprisingly low-resolution compared to how well she brings in the political implications of, say, marriages between warring families. But trade? Just say “trade agreements” on every page or two and let the audience fill in the details. At one point after a book and a half you find out that two of the countries speak different languages, and I swear to you that she decided that on the spot so that she could have one character not quite understand what was going on around her. I’m not going to reread the first book to confirm that multiple languages hadn’t ever been mentioned, but they certainly hadn’t come up in the second until it was convenient. Stuff like that.

The thing is, though, IF you can get past all that– and I absolutely would not blame you for a single second if you declined to even try— the book that is here is pretty fucking compelling. What Jenna Glass does really well is write characters, and she’s done a good job over these two books of filling her pages with characters with competing and overlapping sets of interests and national cultures and setting them against each other. It took me forever to get the second book ordered and then to actually pick it up once I had it on the shelf, but now that I have, I feel dumb about taking so long and want to quickly order the final book of the trilogy, which is already out. So it turns out to be one of those books that I can’t really recommend, because of the various bits of sleeve and sloppiness, but I can accurately report my own reaction to the book and let y’all decide, right? So, yeah: I read this, and I enjoyed it, but it’s a mess, and it might be worth it for you to check it out and maybe it might not, so make your own call.

Let’s talk about the race thing for a second. It is interesting to me that the only characters in this book who the book takes care to describe physically are people from Nandel. Nandel is in the north– it’s the iron-and-gems country– and it’s the most openly misogynist of all the various cultures that exist in this book. Nandelites are also repeatedly described as being blonde, blue-eyed, and pale. Over and over again, in fact, and any time anyone else is referred to in terms of their skin color it’s always a shade of brown, although frequently Glass also tosses in a reference to working outside or something, so you never know just what anyone is supposed to look like. I’m going to point out real quick that a world where only whiteness is considered interesting enough to comment on might be a world where brown skin is the default, and then also point out that if everybody is brown except for these handful of characters (none of whom are primary POV characters) then Glass could certainly have been a hell of a lot clearer about it, as this is roughly akin to J.K. Rowling suddenly claiming that Hermione was always meant to be black because her hair is curly.

I will leave it as an exercise to the reader whether that makes any meaningful difference. I suspect not, but YMMV, as always.

#REVIEW: Black Water Sister, by Zen Cho

I have four or five of Zen Cho’s books by now, and I’m pretty certain I’ve only talked about one of them on here, her Sorcerer to the Crown, which came out way back in 2015, before the world went to hell. I’m not in the mood to bury the lede here, so I’ll put this right up front: this is my favorite of her books, and by a pretty substantial margin. Black Water Sister tells the story of Jess, an American in her early twenties born to immigrant Malaysian parents, who moves back to Malaysia with her family at the beginning of the book, with a Harvard degree under her belt but no real plan on what to do with her life.

Then her grandmother’s spirit moves into her body, and she learns all sorts of things about Malaysian religion and Malaysian gods, and she has to protect a temple from a local gangster who also happens to be the fifth-richest guy in Malaysia, while fighting with her long-distance girlfriend and pointedly not starting a relationship with the only person her age she talks to throughout the entire book, who is a guy and would be a romantic interest in any other book.

And, yeah, it turns out her grandmother is … maybe a little malevolent? Just a titch? A little wee bit? It throws some curveballs you’re probably not expecting.

That’s not why I liked the book, though. This one is a great example of a Book I Liked For the Writing, although I have fewer problems with the story than I usually do with books I enjoy in that particular fashion. The interesting thing here is that this book reads as far more personal to Cho than her previous work– she is, herself, a young Malaysian woman, and while she’s writing a character younger than her I have to assume that some of Cho’s own experiences have made it into the book. If nothing else, the way she writes Malaysian dialogue is just fantastic. Don’t know any Malaysian? Too bad, she’s going to throw some words and phrases out there and if you can’t intuit them from context you’re out of luck. That said, the dialogue in this book is almost entirely at least translated into Manglish if not explicitly written that way; most of the time the Malaysian characters are speaking English to Jess, and the deeper I got into the book the more sidetracked and fascinated I got by how the creole actually works. Malaysian uses a lot of emphatic particles that English doesn’t use, for starters– lots of ending sentences with “lah” and “ah” and “meh” and other syllables like that, and while I never quite pulled together exactly what was going on (and the damn Internet has been no help) the name system they’re using is interesting as hell too. I loved listening to these characters in a way that I haven’t in a long time; I have lots of writers I like whose dialogue I’m big fans of, but this is the first time I can think of where the author’s representation of speech in a culture I was unfamiliar with was so interesting.

(Also, and this is a minor detail, but some of Jess’ relatives are Christians, and it’s fascinating to see the way that Malaysians apparently treat Christianity as an item on a buffet of religions, to be sampled as needed. Conversion to Christianity is pondered at one point in the book as a way to get another god (no shit) to leave them alone, and they treat it about as seriously as I might ponder picking up a new pair of shoes upon discovering that my current ones hurt my feet. It’s like “Oh, we could do that,” and that’s it.)

I can’t attribute reading this one to #readaroundtheworld, as Cho is not only an author I’ve been following for a while but isn’t even the first Malaysian I’ve read this year– that honor went to Cassandra Khaw’s All-Consuming World, and I think Khaw has another book coming out in a month or so, so I’ll have read at least three books by Malaysians this year. But it definitely pairs nicely with the project, and this is exactly the type of book I was looking to read more of for the project. My one complaint? This may not be something that bothers you, but Jess is a bit of an asshole, and not always in a good way. She’s got a filthy mouth in a way that feels jarring compared to everyone else (Jess, as the only American-born, first-language English character in the book, talks significantly differently from every other character) and the couple of times she tells her grandmother to fuck off are … kind of a trip. She also does a bit too much lying in the book for my tastes; she’s lying to her parents about being gay, among other things, and while she’s got a long-distance girlfriend she’s also lying to her through most of the book, as her girlfriend is described as too rational to want to hear Jess complaining about things like being possessed by local deities and gangsters trying to kill her. It means a lot of the book’s energy is devoted to Jess keeping secrets from everyone around her, and keeping track of who knows what, and it can be kind of wearying, to be perfectly honest. But as weak spots in a book go, a young MC acting like a selfish young person isn’t necessarily the worst fault the book could have. I enjoyed this one quite a lot. I think you will too.

#REVIEW: The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu, by Tom Lin

This will be a straightforward review, I think, as this really is one of those books where once I describe the premise you’re going to know right away whether you want to read it, and you will very likely be right: The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu is about a Chinese cowboy (I have seen the word “assassin” used to describe him, but that’s not precisely correct, at least the way I define assassin) in the antebellum Old West; the book takes place mostly in Nevada and California, neither of which are states yet. It’s a revenge story; Ming Tsu has some men he needs to kill, who have wronged him, and … honestly, if you feel like you know how the book is going to go from those few sentences, you’re probably right. There’s a slight supernatural turn that you might not expect; Tsu spends most of the book in the company of a prophet who can predict the future along with a handful of other miraculous individuals with unusual abilities, but the supernatural doesn’t really play as strong a role as you might think.

This is not a surprising book, and while it definitely gets some points for originality because of its Chinese main character– not exactly a common thing in Westerns– you’re going to have a pretty good idea how it’s going to go. No, this is a good book not because it’s breaking new ground but because it does what it does really really well, so if you’re the person who thinks you’re going to enjoy a book about a Chinese cowboy on a revenge-based murder spree, you’re not going to do much better than this book.

Not my longest book piece, I know, but sometimes they don’t have to be.