Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Wen Spencer, please work harder!

ADVISORY: Probable complete unfairness to a living author.

I've been reading a few books by Wen Spencer lately. I came across Tinker first, liked it, moved on to the four Ukaiah Oregon books, liked them too, and last week read A Brother's Price. Which I liked. But I would have liked it a lot more with a bit more work from the author.

To get at what I mean I'll have to give a little background. Like my City of Masks, A Brother's Price is speculative fiction in which there is no magic and the technology is lower than our current real-world technological level, but there is a significant sociological difference. In ABP's case, this is based on a significant biological difference: Very few male children are born. Consequently, men are highly valued - as possessions, to be protected, traded and sold. They aren't usually taught to read (which leads to the classic "deny them education, then point to how dumb they are" maneuver), and they do most of the domestic work - washing, cooking, childcare - for the very large families of sisters and their offspring by a jointly-held husband. Women do everything else. In other words, gender roles are switched, and this provides some thought-provocation.

Where I detected laziness, though, was in the worldbuilding and in the characterization/plotting (I group those together because plot is what characters do).

Firstly, the setting. It's basically 19th-century America, complete with sixguns, Stetsons and derringers (each so called), which I find very lazy worldbuilding. There is a difference: the country is ruled by Queens (they aren't a monarchy as such, because whichever generation of the royal family is currently the "mothers" are, jointly, the rulers; rule passes to the next generation at the birth of its first child). In fact, the country is called Queensland, which raises the never-explored questions, how are other countries governed? What other countries are there? Where are they located in relation to Queensland? What trade goes on with them? Is Queensland a former colony of somewhere else, or has it been settled time out of mind? Queensland seems to sit in a historical and geographical vacuum, surrounded by blankness. There is some history of Queensland, a kind of civil war fought a couple of generations before, but that appears to be all the history there is.

What's more, the women who do everything in Queensland do it in exactly the same kind of macho way as men would - they are warlike, violent and argumentative. Whether this is realistic could be debated, but in this book, it certainly isn't; it's just a given. The people who run society will be macho idiots a lot of the time, end of issue, now let's have some fighting.

Then the characters and plot. One of the (male) main character's sisters behaves very badly and irresponsibly early on, then - gets over it and doesn't do it again, doesn't take revenge out of anger for her punishment, generally seems to mature for no discernable reason. One of the princesses has a very understandable objection to a course of action favoured by the others, and then - gets over it all of a sudden and for no discernable reason. We don't see any process of how these characters changed, how their powerful emotional issues were resolved. They just cease to be an impediment to the plot. Just as in Ukaiah Oregon the "Famous Bitch of Ice", FBI Agent Zheng, thaws completely and instantly when she meets Ukaiah. We're not told why she's a bitch of ice in the first place, exactly what was magic about Ukaiah... We see no process.

I'm not advocating holding up the action while the characters talk endlessly about their internal conflicts; after all, I'm reading this kind of fiction rather than another kind because I like the externalization of internal conflicts. But that's not what I'm receiving. I'm receiving the replacement of internal conflict (and its resolution) with external conflict, and it's just not fully satisfying; it feels rushed and incomplete.

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