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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 18, 2007

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Inda, Heart-Shaped, Medium

You're supposed to eat organic foods because they're good for you. And if they're good for you, then aren't they supposed to be just a little nastier than regular food?

Not if you're eating Julie's Organic Ice Cream Sandwiches. Of course they're packed with calories. But because they're organic, they're healthy. And would I even be mentioning them here if they weren't delicious?

*

Fantasy author Sherwood Smith's website identifies her as a "minor writer." This title is proclaimed more than once, leading me to believe that either Smith is proud of this rank, resentful of it, or anxious to assert her modesty.

Or all of the above.

Let's face it. You don't start writing fiction if you didn't have a healthy dose of vanity and ambition. What could be more arrogant than to believe that stuff you make up out of your head will be so pleasurable to others that they ought to pay you to be able to read it?

And then we have contests to see whose made-up stuff is best. One type of contest takes the form of bestseller lists -- the readers vote with their money. And because only one book can be the absolute bestseller at any given moment, we subdivide it so more people have a chance to be on or near the top.

We divide fiction from nonfiction. American from foreign. Each genre has its own list.

And when the Harry Potter novels sat atop the mainstream fiction lists for(approximately)ever, disgruntled and unnumber-oned authors and publishers pressured and cajoled the New York Times to kick Rowling's novels off the list and stick them in a separate kiddy-lit category so "serious" novels could once again stare at Stephen King's name instead of J. K. Rowling's.

I do believe that in the long run, what we need are so many lists that everybody can be number one on at least one list.

Bestselling books by chain-smoking bisexuals, by alcoholics at least five years dry, by left-handed children of chicken farmers, and, my favorite, by Mormons living in North Carolina. (I've had the top several positions on that list for, like, years).

The other type of writerly contest consists of awards and prizes, bestowed upon one another by the vain and needy.

As a writer myself, I am happy to report that I have turned down neither money nor awards.

And, possessing the requisite vanity, I am repeatedly baffled by the fact that there are actually readers who pretend to be discerning and intelligent who nevertheless decline the opportunity to purchase, read, and give awards to the stuff I made up.

Maybe Sherwood Smith is of a more puritan character than I, and she truly wishes no more than "minor writer" status.

If so, she has made a dreadful mistake by writing the fantasy novel Inda. Because it seriously threatens to move her into the lofty ranks of "major writers of fantasy."

(Of course, there are plenty of writers and students of academic-literary fiction who will sniff and say that "major writer of fantasy" is an oxymoron. And that "minor writer of fantasy" is a redundancy. To which I reply: Bite me.)

Inda looks, on the face of it, to be a very standard story: The title character is a younger son of a noble house in a medieval kingdom, who goes to the royal military academy and distinguishes himself as a commander while winning the love and/or hatred of teachers, authorities, and fellow trainees.

Come to think of it, I've written that book myself. So has Robin Hobb. Robert Heinlein. Let's save time -- all you fantasy writers who have never written such a book, raise your hands!

OK, so there are a few of you. But admit it -- you're planning to write such a book, aren't you?

But the fact that there's a long tradition of hero-goes-to-military-academy books is not really a mark against Inda.

There are many types of stories we tell over and over (like the college professor who is absolutely irresistible to attractive young co-eds -- he shows up in ac-lit fiction so often I have to wonder who the real fantasy writers are these days).

And the tale of the childhood-and-education-of-the-hero is so common they even have a single word for it: bildungsroman.

OK, it's not really a word, it's a German word, which means it's secretly an entire sentence (except for the really long ones, which are sonnets).

It's hard to draw a clear line between bildungsroman and children's literature. Don't they both have youthful heroes who don't understand their own potential for good or evil until they have completed their course of instruction in Life?

The confusion is especially, um, confusing in the genre of fantasy, because the boundaries between children's, young adult, and adult fantasy are already so blurred as to be almost nonexistent.

It hasn't been that long since the days when Atheneum would come out with a young-adult (YA) fantasy novel in hardcover, and then Ballantine would publish the same book, not a word changed, as an adult fantasy novel.

These days fantasy is steadily replacing science fiction as the literature-of-choice for teenagers, and not just because of Harry Potter. Indeed, though Harry Potter's success is unique, it was well within a tradition that was already growing quite strongly.

Sherwood Smith has already written several series of young-adult fantasies in which kids are forced by circumstance to plunge themselves into the adult world and make sense of senseless rules.

The difference between her YA fantasies and Inda seems at first glance to be a matter of complexity and decorum. Throughout the YA genre, even if heroes or heroines are old enough to be interested in the opposite sex, the interest remains shy and the activities are offstage.

So much so, in one of Sherwood Smith's earlier YA fantasies, Crown Duel (originally published as two books, Crown Duel and Court Duel), that the young heroine was almost insanely oblivious to her seeming-enemy's attraction to her.

Of course, in that book the heroine was insanely oblivious to almost everything.

Which brings us to the real reason why, up to now, Sherwood Smith has in fact been the "minor writer" that she claims. Her earlier stories were engagingly written, and all the right stuff happened.

But it feels as though she's flailing about in constructing the story: Here's a cool thing -- we'll have this happen. I know she's got to be captured, so I'll have her ... um ... fall into one of her army's own traps! And ... um ... she's got to get away so ... we'll have a handy conspiracy ... but then she has to be recaptured so that she can talk to the cute villain-guy again so ...

This is what is referred to as "contrived" storytelling. Whatever the writer thinks should happen, happens, however thin the means of having it happen might be.

Now, I have no idea how Smith works. It might well be that in Crown Duel everything was carefully planned out in advance.

What matters is that the storytelling seems thin and contrived. Yet Smith is a good enough writer that despite that sense that the story is about as deep as a puddle, I couldn't put it down.

And maybe I only thought of Crown Duel as thin because I had read Inda first.

Not that Inda is perfect. Sherwood Smith is quite cavalier with point-of-view in that novel, dipping into the thoughts of any character she feels like, switching several times in the same scene, and sometimes in the middle of a paragraph.

This certainly is the writer's privilege, but the price is steep -- it's jarring and confusing each time the viewpoint changes, and it leaves the reader feeling more distant from all the characters.

Doesn't matter. The world creation and characterization within Inda have the complexity and depth and inventiveness that mark a first-rate fantasy novel.

It's a nation in which the ironclad tradition among the nobility -- including the royal family -- is that the oldest son inherits, while the second son is destined to be the family's military leader. In order to make sure the second son is properly subservient to the older brother he will serve and obey all his life, the older brother is responsible for training -- no, for raising -- his younger brother.

The result is predictable. Children aren't good at raising children, and older brothers are invariably careless of the younger one's feelings, to say the least, and many -- perhaps most -- are brutal, even cruel.

The only respite the younger sibs get is when the older ones go off to the king's military academy, leaving the younger ones to lead a happy, peaceful life at home for much of the year.

Until the normal order is changed, for reasons having to do with the royal heir. He has refused to train his younger brother; he seems to have determined that he will choose someone else as his military leader, and leave his younger brother to be a powerless scholar.

The king, unable to openly repudiate his heir's neglect of his duty toward the younger prince, decrees that younger sons will also attend the military school.

Thus Inda, a younger son of a noble family -- indeed, a family with a right to claim royal blood themselves -- is thrust into a school he never thought to attend, where he promptly trips up on the political intrigues that are threatening to lead to oblique assassination attempts and potential treason.

What makes the characters complex is that Sherwood Smith is not content to have good guys and bad guys. Indeed, just when we think it's safe to hate somebody, she throws us a curve and makes the bad guy's motives complicated and at least somewhat understandable. Everybody is able to justify his actions as being "in the best interests" of the kingdom.

The result is a powerful beginning to a very promising series by a writer who is making her bid to be a major fantasist after all.

The book is not easy going at the first, primarily because Smith introduces a lot of new vocabulary in the form of titles whose distinctions of meaning are important but not clear -- we get the titles long before we understand the society. It doesn't help that a lot of them are way too similar, making it hard to remember which new word is which.

But eventually you do learn as much of the language as you need to, and the story is clear sailing after that.

By the time I finished, I was so captured by this book that it lingered for days afterward. This was not convenient -- I had stories of my own to write. But I was haunted. I had lived inside these characters, inside this world, and I was unwilling to let go of it. That, I think, is the mark of a major work of fiction.

If you aren't already a reader of massive fantasy series, start with something clearer -- Tolkien, Hobb, or Martin. But if you have already gotten your feet wet in the genre, you owe it to yourself to read Inda.

*

I kept picking up Joe Hill's first novel, Heart-Shaped Box. This is a deeply disturbing mystery that begins with Jude, an aging heavy-metal rock star, buying a ghost on E-Bay. It comes to him in the form of a suit the dead man wore, which arrives in the titular heart-shaped box.

Jude quickly learns that it wasn't just a random purchase, an oddity to add to his macabre collection. Jude was the intended purchaser in a one-man auction. This ghost wasn't acquired, it was sent in order to destroy him, as punishment for the way he treats women. One woman in particular.

Creepy? Scary? Yup. And the ending makes sense. It pays off not just as a thriller, but as a character story as well.

The weakness of Heart-Shaped Box is that Jude himself is so deeply unlikeable. Of course, that's the point -- if he didn't treat women callously and he weren't so utterly selfish, no one would have tried to haunt him to death in the first place.

And he does grow through the course of the novel into someone that we can imagine someone actually wanting to love.

But it takes a while for us to get there. The only thing we've got to hang onto for a lot of pages is the weird idea of buying a ghost on e-Bay, and then the creepy things that start happening after the ghost arrives. For some readers, that's enough.

It's not enough for me, alas. That's the point when I skip ahead to the end to see if the book is going to be worth reading.

Which is what I did.

And it is.

*

So last night my wife and our youngest daughter and I finished watching the DVDs of the second season of Medium. We have now officially watched every episode they've put out.

Now we just have to wait, week after week, for the next episode. Just as with any other series.

It is a series. Unlike Lost, Heroes, Prison Break, and 24, which tell a continuous story that moves forward incrementally from week to week, Medium is much more of a tradition drama series, in which a fixed cast of characters face a major problem and resolve it by the end of the hour.

Some story threads do continue across the arc of the series. As with the late and much-missed Judging Amy, which this series in some ways resembles, the main characters learn and change.

But not so much that they ever take away from the main storyline of the episode. In that sense, this series owes rather more to Law and Order.

I've already written about the superb acting -- especially the family members; especially the two older daughters, who may be the best child actors in television since Opie hung up his fishing rod.

What I really admire about this series, though, is the writing.

By any rational standard, this series should have collapsed under its own weight after the first dozen episodes. The premise is paper-thin, after all. The heroine is a psychic who helps the cops. Where does that lead, every week? Cops are baffled; psychic catches a vibe or talks to a ghost, and presto, there's the solution.

It should have sucked. Especially if, like me, you don't believe in psychics and mediums. Well, no, I take that back -- I believe that people calling themselves psychics and mediums exist. I just think they're all self-promoting fakes, with the possible exception of a few who are merely deluded.

The writers, led by series creator Glenn Gordon Caron (whose roots are in two series noted for wit: Moonlighting and Remington Steele), far transcend the limitations of the series premise. I think I can safely say that in no two episodes do they resort to the same mechanism of bringing a problem to the heroine's attention. Nor are any two episodes resolved the same way.

They are also extraordinarily creative in finding ways to get the heroine and her family intimately involved in the dreams, visions, and hauntings. Only rarely do they resort to the cheap trick of having a villain who deliberately seeks out the heroine for vengeance (and then it's always for plausible reasons).

It helps that most episodes begin with a dream, from which the heroine awakens in confusion or fear. Inside dreams, rules can change. You can see yourself as one of the characters. One person can stand for someone else; the vision might be literal or metaphorical. Like the heroine, the audience gets to try to figure out what the dreams mean, how they interface with reality.

What could have been a quickly-exhausted formula has the potential to be a very long-running series.

I hope you're watching it. Partly because I'm a nice guy and I want you to have the pleasure of experiencing such good writing and acting.

And partly because the only way I'll keep getting new episodes of Medium is if millions and millions of people are watching it along with me. Including you. Please.

*

Without ever actually planning to, I have somehow got myself involved in writing comic books, and having comic books made from my novels and short stories.

And it's fun.

At the same time, it's not like comic books are a noble part of our culture. They're kind of ... how shall I say ... retro.

If you doubt me, check out http://youtube.com/watch?v=pB7DlcDto4Y. The video is funny. But the message is oh so sad.

Don't tell me the need for affirmative action is over.

*

Did you miss the chance to see SVU's production of my adaptation of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew? Did you find the three-hour-each-way drive, um, intimidating or something?

Well, now you can see the production on your computer. Now, it's not as good as being there. For one thing, we had only a tiny audience the night we recorded it. For another thing, it's a stage production with cameras in front, not a movie.

But hey, if you aren't willing to spring for a tank of gas and a late-night drive for the sake of great art, then this is the best you're gonna get.

Check it out at http://www.hatrack.com.


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