Tigers, Temptations and the Ten Percent Thief

Content Warning: graveyard sex.

For newcomers: I’m reading 30-odd award-winning romances and doing some spurious analyses of the values they reinforce.

Marjorie Liu’s Tiger Eye (2010, Option): Liu is now better known for Monstress, which is not to cast any shade on her long-running ‘Dirk and Steele’ series of paranormal romances. Monstress is a career-defining creative achievement and an amazing thing. And it makes me happy to think that a lot of people pick up Monstress, wonder ‘what else did this terrific writer do?’ and pick up Tiger Eye and its unabashedly lycanthropic bang-fest. Romance and fantasy - as I’ve written elsewhere - is actually a pretty difficult combination. Making a book work as both a fantasy and a romance means creating both a big, robust, detailed world and a tightly-focused, meaningful emotional journey. And, generally speaking, that’s hard to balance.You find a lot of fantasy romances that are good at one side, but skimp on the other.

Liu does a pretty good job of skating through the center of the Venn. Dela Reese opens a puzzle box (not that one) and an immortal were-tiger pops out. Hari’s still being pursued, across millennia, by an evil wizard. Fortunately, Dela’s part of a secret society of magic-using detectives, so she’s up to the challenge. The plot actually isn’t bad: there are some baddies out there (magical and non), and the big nasty is, indeed, big and nasty. There’s also a lot of set-up for future books - ticking the tropes of both genres, not only by introducing lots of characters by also by alluding to much bigger conflicts ahead. There’s a bit of ‘the real magic is love’ goofiness, but the whole thing is so fun. The book is now somewhat notorious for its, uh, transformative sex scenes. (Fuzzy bits!) But, in a weird way, that’s a testament to how strong rest of the book is every part of this book is ridiculous, but it is so smoothly delivered that you don’t blink an eye until there’s a randy tiger in your bed.

Values: Freedom! A book that is literally about a fuzzy dude trapped in a box where the plot is ‘freeing fuzzy dude from a box’. Interestingly enough, Freedom is absolutely secondary to Mature Love (which I’ve been counting as a given for all the books), as evidenced by the dozen-or-so conversations between Dela and Hari in which he’s all ‘I’d stay in a box forever for you, darling’. But with Mature Love being in the bag (or the box), Freedom is it.

Elizabeth Boyle’s Brazen Angel (1998, RITA Winner): After a bit of scampering around different subgenres, it was nice to be back in my heartland of the historical romance. It is nice to travel to the lands of cowboys and were-tigers, but I’ll always be loyal to my horny duchesses. Roughly speaking, the Georgian/Regency romance subgenre splits into two categories: the ones where the plot is the romance, and the ones where the plot is the romance but also other stuff happens. Brazen Angel is one of the latter.

Giles is a lord who needs to get married and has an arranged bride, but he’s never met her. Giles is also a Secret Agent who is trying to avenge the death of 006 another Secret Agent. Sophia is said bride, but is also reluctant to get married becaues she’s got shit to do. Amongst other things: Sophia was the honey trap that endangered Giles’ dead mate, something that occured while she was wearing one of her many false identities - that particular one a French revolutionary leader. Sophia is also gallivanting around London dressed as the ‘Brazen Angel’, using her sexy wiles to steal money from evil nobility and using that money to… fund … the release of her family from a Parisian prison? And … something? But also politics? It is a lot.

Giles and Sophia meet repeatedly, under various identities. They get sexy (in a graveyard, because this is not a book about boundaries). Then they take turns being Very Suspicious of one another, because, weirdly, when you’re in disguise having midnight cemetery bonks with a stranger who is also in disguise, you may have trust issues. But then they’re madly in love and launching prison escapes and the whole thing turns into the final act of Robin Hood (the animated one). It is pretty good fun. Don’t think about it too hard.

Values: I’ve actually tagged this one for Equality. Despite being unbelievably, well, unbelievable, the big ‘lesson’ Giles learns is that Sophia is just as good at this as he is - if not substantially better. The denouement is even the two of them doing spy things together, like the dynamic duo that they are. There are a few other bits and pieces as well, but it makes me like Brazen Angel. If you’re going to write a ‘historical’ that’s anachronistic and silly, you might as well fix the structural misogyny while you’re in there.

Wendy Lindstrom’s Shades of Honor (RITA Winner, 2003) is a post-Civil War historical romance. Radford is returning home after a long stint in the war and its aftermath. He, and his young daughter, want nothing more than comfort and permanency - two things they’re hoping to find back at the Radford family sawmill. But when Radford comes home, he finds that his younger brother, Kyle, has been running the mill in his absence, and has no intent of giving it up. Radford also finds that his younger brother’s bride to be, Evelyn, has grown into a foxxxy woman in his absence - but Kyle has no intent of giving her up either.

I’d say I’m ‘neutral to negative’ on most of the tropes on display in Shades of Honor. I’m simply not interested in the ‘hot single dad’ trope and not wild about the ‘cheating in your head’ trope. I’m reeeeeeally not a fan of the ‘dude has hideous PTSD’ convention that’s so frequently found in romance books (it is so often used in conjunction with Massive Alpha Males, as a way of using mental health to ‘cut them down to size’, which is, frankly, reprehensible on a lot of levels). ALL THAT SAID, Shades does a really respectable job of staying in the safe zone for all three. Radford is a hot dad with insta-family appeal, but Evelyn really works to earn her future step-daughter’s trust. The head-cheating is annoying, but Shades (presumably with sequels in mind) never Zanes* Kyle. He’s a good man, and is never portrayed otherwise. And, finally, this isn’t one of those novels where a serious mental health problem is solved by passionate sex (I’m looking at you, A Candle in the Dark). Yes, having someone he can trust and talk to is important; no, her vagina does not magically cure trauma.

Values: Inner Harmony, because it is very much about finding peace. I also gave a tiny shout-out to Self-Control because Evelyn and Radford do manage to keep it in their pants until (SPOILER) about fifteen minutes after she breaks off the engagement. Tiny round of applause for technically not cheating.

* Zane (verb): to become suddenly and unaccountably evil because of plot requirements; as in Billy Zane’s character in Titanic. “At the start of the book, Chet is a lovely boyfriend, but then he Zaned and ate her cat.”

What I’m reading:

Home | Rebellion Publishing

Lavanya Lakshminarayan’s The Ten Percent Thief is out now next week (properly, that is - there was an earlier edition, but good luck finding it). The tldr; a cyberpunk mosaic novel set in Bangalore. The latter is now called ‘Apex City’ which is, in a feat of social planning that some accelerationist think tank would adore, is structured around the Bell Curve. All the ‘Virtuals’ are plugged into the system, grinding away to keep on the upswing. The ‘Analogs’ are technologically and literally outcast, living outside the gates as a combination of cheap labour and side-show attraction.

I am a big, big fan of well-composed mosaic novels: novels that are comprised of somehow-interlinked short stories. While a novel can be a great deep dive into a single point of view, short stories give multiple, lighter-touch perspectives. In the case of Thief, the latter is a wise decision: the underpinning thesis is that everyone in this constructed society has a wildly different experience. Choosing any single protagonist would give a false impression to how deeply unfair Apex City is, and how, despite the ambition of universality, human refuse to conform. The structure emphasises the resilient, democratic view that the setting itself artificially suppresses.

Although that inherent unfairness is never hidden, Thief is generous and blames systems, not people. The stories truly are democratic, giving us snapshots of the everyday lives of celebrities and renegades. Perhaps most importantly, it focuses strongly on the ‘middle class’ (mathematically, given the curve!).

Thief is also, like all the best cyberpunk, not about technology. There are wonders and gizmos within Apex City, but these are stories about people’s lives. Technology is interesting for what it can do for (or to) people, not simply a narrative focus in and of itself. The story, “Études”, a personal favourite deftly brings this distinction to life: a young woman is simultaneously trying to achieve Virtual ‘citizenship’ and win a musical prize. Accomplishing the latter without the technological aides that existing citizens have puts her at a disadvantage - or does it? (The focus on technology as instrument of story versus technology as object of story is, to me, one of the dividing lines between cyberpunk and science fiction, but you’ll be getting much more of this in the months to come!)

‘Cyberpunk’ is now, incorrectly, taken to reflect an inherently negative setting. And although Apex City is (again) unfair, it isn’t - despite the best attempts of its masters - static. This is, punk-like, a collection of rebellions against, and reconsiderations of, the status quo. Some people are, inarguably enjoying the benefits and actively perpetrating inequality, but most are, in their own small ways, discontent.

Obviously the challenge of the mosaic novel is that it is difficult to write a cohesive review: there’s no 'main’ character or singular conflict. What metaplot there is (and there definitely is one, but I won’t spoil it), is tactfully secondary to the individual struggles / triumphs / failures within each story. I have several favourites: “Études”, as mentioned, and “Monsters Under the Bed” is also, as they say, a corker. One of my favourite books of recent years.

Meanwhile, this week in our cyberpunk present:

Crowdfunding home-brew brain-tracking devices. As always, what could possibly go wrong? (Courtesy of Web Curios, which is a better newsletter than this one.)

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