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I’ve only watched one episode of Game of Thrones (don’t @ me, I read the first three books and that was more than enough). But I was fascinated by this NYT Magazine article on visiting the Westeros sets and locations in Northern Ireland, written by an Irishman. The blending of the real and the artificial, and the way in which the artificial overlays the real, is understandable but also troubling. What happens when we create Disneyfied landscapes in places with real history? And what happens when our mental images are dominated by the way they stand in for fake worlds and start to erase the real ones?

Less than half an hour after the tour bus left the pickup point, I realized we were no longer in Northern Ireland, but had entered the realm of Westeros. We were passing Stormont Castle, on the outskirts of Belfast. This was theoretically the seat of Northern Ireland’s government, but for over two years now this executive office — jointly controlled by the right-wing loyalist (and largely Protestant) Democratic Unionist Party and the left-wing republican (and largely Catholic) Sinn Fein — had languished in a state of indefinite suspension thanks to a densely complex sequence of disagreements. The tour guide made no mention of this notable landmark, and the reason he made no mention of it, I further understood, was that it had nothing to do with “Game of Thrones.”

This has already happened in a non-political way in New Zealand, with the landscape being associated with the Lord of the Rings movies rather than its own history.

Somewhat relatedly, I was listening to a radio report on the Notre Dame fire as it was happening, and there was an interview with someone who had immediately set about creating online video libraries of photos of the cathedral and its interiors. Which is great, but virtual visits aren’t substitutes for actual visits. I understand not everyone can visit historical and artistic monuments (I’ve never visited the Parthenon, and I doubt I’ll ever see Petra), but we do a disservice to them and to ourselves when we elide the difference between looking at a two-dimensional or even three-dimensional virtual representations with the actual tactile and optical experience of seeing the real thing. For my whole life I’ve told people that however many photographs you’ve seen of the Taj Mahal, it will not prepare you for its beauty. Marble in person is just different than marble in a photograph or video, and you can’t fully appreciate the Taj’s perfect proportions until you see it in situ. It’s OK not to have seen it (none of us will see everything we want to). It’s not OK to act as if Google Earth is a satisfying substitute.

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Done With Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

clarkeAchievement unlocked. After more than a decade, I have finally read this book, thanks to Keishon. It was an up and down experience, but overall I’m glad I read it. I’m also glad I’m finally done. Reading it steadily (30-40 pages a day) worked for this style of book, with its many descriptive passages and sections that seemed to go nowhere, but it’s not my preferred way of reading.

In the end, I can see that this is an accomplished book, and I understand why so many people loved it. For me, in 2015/2016, it’s ultimately not a satisfying book. When I was looking for reviews that talked about the book the way I was experiencing it (I didn’t find many), I ran across this seminar at Crooked Timber (I must have read it when it came out, because I’ve been reading the site forever, but I don’t remember it). I found Clarke’s response post very illuminating. She seems to have been writing as much to the 19thC novel world as to the 19thC world itself. She wanted to write a book that was in line with the world created by those novels. So of course the main characters were prosperous, privileged men, and the women, servants, and nonwhite characters played subsidiary and reactive roles (I wrote briefly about my discomfort with the Stephen Black character over at Booklikes). That isn’t the whole story of the 19thC, but it is what many novels emphasize.

I also gathered from her post that what interested her most was magic. So it is an idea book in a sense (what would happen if there were magic in England again after a long hiatus and how would it re-emerge). But while the idea drives the storyline and shapes the characters, it doesn’t interact with the other elements of the novel that well. Magic wins the Napoleonic wars, but that’s it for wars. It’s part of the government’s arsenal of policies, but we don’t see details. Magic shapes character behavior, but the characters themselves aren’t that engaging or deep, at least I didn’t find them so. I could see what Strange went through, but it stayed on the page.

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Nazis heroes in romance novels

I’ve gone back and forth on whether to add to the cacophony around the RITA nomination of Kate Breslin’s inspirational historical romance, For Such A Time. This is a book set in 1944, primarily at the Theresienstadt camp, with a love story between the camp Kommandant and a Jewish young woman at its core.

I’ve written and rewritten paragraphs about the book, the controversy, etc., but I don’t think I really have much to add to that part. If you’re on Twitter, if you follow major blogs, or if you read online magazines, you’ve come across the debate. Many of the contributors to the debate have not read the book. There are all kinds of things being stated as fact, sometimes after reading the book, sometimes not. There is also a lot of “well, that’s what inspirational romance is.”

I am almost finished reading the book and will be participating in a joint discussion/review of it at Dear Author. I’ll link to that post when it is published, and for people who don’t read DA, I’ll provide a brief summary here and we can talk about it in comments if people are interested.

In the meantime, I want to talk about where this book fits in the larger historical romance (and historical fiction with romantic elements) category. This book clearly brings together a number of volatile, offensive, and arguably beyond-the-pale factors. However, when we take each of these factors in turn, it appears that they are all fairly well established in the romance genre (or at least the part of the romantic fiction genre that is reviewed and recognized by romance-centric sites and organizations).

I have no desire to defend the book, either in terms of its premise or its execution. I am interested in challenging the idea that this book is a unique specimen. To the extent it is unique, its uniqueness lies in combining elements which have gone relatively unremarked (and often praised) in other romance and romantic novels when they appear individually.

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Reading Shirley

Nothing like a 2100-mile road trip to give you the opportunity to listen to a really long book. After several previous starts and stops (from last year!) I finally managed to crack the back of this book. Liz McC and Miss Bates have both written about their experiences reading Shirley, and both are far more competent than I to talk about it as a novel. I approached it as a lover of 19thC literature but not a lover of Brontë. I still have 6 hours to go, so this is a muse-in-progress.

I really did need all those hours driving alone to stick to Shirley, because my God there is a lot of bloat in this thing. Or not bloat, maybe, but there are at least three books in this book. There is the nominal plot, about the mill and the changing economic conditions of the region. There are the relationships between young women, young and old women, and women and men. And then there are the many, many didactic passages (entire chapters, even) by the omniscient narrator, on everything from gender to nature to politics to religion (established, pagan, you name it).

I thought I was getting a book on riots and social change and suddenly William Blake showed up. I am not a fan of William Blake. But then he would be elbowed aside by Mary Wollstonecraft. Which was better but still unbelievably didactic. And even worse, sometimes it was dialogue. No one speaks this way! No one ever spoke this way! Certainly not barely-educated Yorkshire maidens.

This feels like a book written by a very angry woman, but an angry woman who in the end is writing two romantic storylines with HEAs. The romantic parts undercut the gender parts for me, because as miserable as Caroline is, and as independent and strong-willed as Shirley is, they are both shaped so thoroughly by their love for specific men. I couldn’t help but think that Caroline would have been fine if Robert had just had a bit more economic success from the outset and been able to act on his love for her. I’m not sure what Shirley’s point was supposed to be, as a character. She’s rich and independent and apparently highly motivated to be a good landowner, but then she’ll stop for pages and pages, falling into a trance and thinking about Adam and Eve, or just Eve. And then three-quarters of the way through the book we find out that she too is pining for a man.

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Thoughts on The Goblin Emperor

Last year social media was abuzz with love for Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor, a fantasy novel written by Sarah Monette under a new pseudonym. In fact, there was so much buzz that I doubted I would ever read it because I frequently don’t do well with non-romance novels that are beloved by my romance-reading buddies. I was tempted, despite the 18-year-old protagonist and the elves & goblins setting, because the emphasis on politics and court intrigue was right up my alley. Still, my TBR was huge, I was on a book-buying fast, and I was enjoying what I had queued up in my near reading future.

Then the Hugo nominations furor hit, and I was struck by the fact that the two non-slate novel nominees were The Goblin Emperor and Ancillary Sword. I’d been underwhelmed by the first half of Ancillary Justice and put it aside but was still mulling why, and now another book I had ambivalence about was nudging me to read it. So I decided to give it a try.

I read the first chapter and found it well written but not particularly engaging. It takes a huge suspension of disbelief to accept that the ruler of a nation whose sovereigns are endangered regularly through that nation’s history would let his entire line of succession (at least the part he approved) ride with him in the same vehicle. But if he hadn’t, our hero wouldn’t have stumbled onto the Throne of Elfland (not the real name of the nation but Addison makes up lots of names and they’re even harder to spell than they are to remember). I lowered my eyebrow and decided to keep reading. And I’m glad I did. I didn’t love this book the way so many people do, but it has many features to recommend it.

I found The Goblin Emperor to be a warm, fluffy, blanket of a book. It was never particularly surprising; the good people stayed good, the villains were who you expected them to be, and the hero and his immediate circle were unfailingly decent, honorable, and admirable. Maia, the accidental emperor, was sweet and obviously sympathetic, but in some ways it was too obvious. I would have to have an even harder heart than I do not to be moved by his plight, but it felt like something I accepted as part of the story rather than something that reached out to me and gradually brought to me care deeply for his fate. His problems were external, rather than the result of the internal struggles of a complicated personality, with the exception of his reflexive self-loathing, and even that dissipated as he realized that he was not that unusual, he just had an awful, awful father who made innocent victims pay for his own poor decisions.

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