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REVIEW:  The Last Hour of Gann by R. Lee Smith

REVIEW: The Last Hour of Gann by R. Lee Smith

Dear R. Lee Smith:

I can’t remember the last time a book had me so engaged emotionally and so utterly captivated by the storyline. Maybe not since Meljean Brook’s Iron Duke or Jennifer Ashley’s The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie. I’ve been telling everyone I know, from posting about it on Facebook, to tweeting about it, texting local friends, and emailing others.

Last Hour of Gann R Lee Smith
The world building blew me away as did the hero, Meoraq. The heroine, Amber, was also quite good although her character was a bit more problematic. Let me state up front that bad things happen to Amber in this book. Bad things happen to Meoraq too and in some ways more devastating than what happens to Amber but that might be debatable.

The short summary of this review is Amber and Meoraq go on a quest (only one of them really knows this), fall in love, bad things happen, and then the end.  I loved it even though the hero is a lizardman. Longer, spoiler-y review below.

I’m sharing some details because I want to try to convince people to read the book and I think a little background is not amiss. If a reader doesn’t like any kind of spoilers, stop now and just skip to the buy buttons at the bottom.

Ahem.

Amber is the daughter of a prostitue and in post apocalyptic Earth where there is population control due to dying resources, Amber and her sister, Nicci, are left with few options. Amber decides that she and Nicci will embark on Earth’s first colony-ship in hopes that they will obtain a better chance at life in another planet. Nicci does not want to go but Amber forces her too. This decision will haunt Amber forever.

Amber and Nicci’s ship crash lands on an unknown world and only about 50 of the several thousand humans aboard the ship survive. Out of the small group of survivors are two leaders – Amber and Scott.  Amber is a terrible people person and despite having a good head on her shoulders such as knowing not to camp in a valley during a rain, no one will listen to her.  Scott is the opposite. He has few survival skills but for his charisma.  Scott and Nicci (and most of the humans) are the most poorly drawn characters in the story. We never really get a sense of why anyone would follow Scott, but they do. I wished we had been shown instead of told that Scott was charismatic because I only saw him as a sniveling coward. Nonetheless, Scott recognizes that Amber is a threat to his leadership and does everything he can to marginalize her. The only thing that really saves her is that she is the one person whom Meoraq communicates with.

Meoraq. Holy cow. Best hero I’ve read all year. Meoraq is a Sword of Sheul, God’s Striding Foot. He is of the house of Uyane, son of the finest warrior Sheul has known. Meoraq himself is victor of hundreds of trials and known throughout the land.  As a Sheulek , Meoraq commands the respect of all men and all women because he is in a position closest to God.  The process of becoming a Sheulek is something akin to page – knight – baron or  cub scout -> scout -> eagle scout.  Essentially Sheulek is the highest position that can be held and in this religious run world, a warrior priest.

He gets to partake of whatever he desires, including the females.  As the eldest son Meoraq will eventually have to take up the stewardship of the House of Uyane and marry a woman and beget sons on her.  He looks forward to this task as one might look forward to licking a toilet clean. Meoraq will get to marrying and settling down in his own damned time.  He admits that humility is something he needs to work on.

Obviously. How many other Sheuleks do you have in your damned city tonight?

‘Forgive me, O my Father, and give me patience,’ Meoraq thought. He said, politely, “I am.”

“I am Exarch Ylsathoc Hirut.”

Meoraq waited.

The exarch frowned, clearly annoyed that he did not fall back cowering at the name. “Surely you were told that I wished to speak with you as soon as you arrived, as I was told the moment that you passed the gates of this city. But that was more than an hour ago. And here I have been. Waiting.”

I am a Sheulek and I go where I fucking well will.

One night as he gazes out into the sky, he sees a burning hand (Amber’s ship) and immediately believes that this is a sign from Sheul to seek on the holy temple of Xi’Matezh.  There he hopes to enter the inner sanctum that opens only for some and hear the voice of God tell him his future path. Meoraq does not lack confidence. Not only does he believe that he can make the trek but that the doors of the temple will open for him AND that he is important enough that God will speak to him about an unimportant of an issue as who shall be Meoraq’s wife. Even his cousin is amazed at Meoraq’s brazenness.

When Meoraq comes upon the humans, they all view him as an ignorant animal, all except Amber who recognizes that he understands her. Of course Meoraq is thinking the very same thing. At first they are disgusting features with no face but when they speak, he understands that these must be a different sort of creature made by God. Not only that but God must have put them in his path as part of his quest.

The longer he listened, the more certain Meoraq became that the strange chatter of the creatures who called themselves humans was indeed a true language, entirely separate from his own. This troubled him. The Prophet’s Word is the only Word. This was the first law of Sheul, repeated no less than twenty-three times throughout the book of His Word, and apart from the obvious, it had been interpreted to mean that there must be a single language so that all men might hear and understand the wisdoms of Sheul. Where once there had been countless tongues spoken over Gann, there was now only one: Dumaqi, the speech of men.

So. That the humans neither spoke nor even seemed to understand dumaqi was therefore an ominous sign of their true nature, but Meoraq had to admit that he had not emerged from his mother’s womb speaking it either. He would have to meditate on the matter.

The first third of the story is rather slow but filled with details about the world. We learn that Amber is a strong willed character, observant, smart and unfortunately devoted to her very weak sister.  We learn that Meoraq is a great warrior and that his religion has some unfortunate aspects that he believes in blindly. For instance, women are simply there to be seen and not heard. They are sniveling, whiny things good for only begetting sons and he was almost repelled by his own father’s devotion to the woman that spat him out.  Another unfortunate aspect is that all things are determined by combat. Disputes are decided between “champions” and the one that wins is determined to be right. I.e., if you throw a witch in water with her feet bound by concrete and she floats, then she isn’t a witch.  Meoraq always wins those disputes no matter how many men are thrown at him. Hence his status as Sheulek and his revered  reputation.

But Meoraq’s belief in the rightness of Sheul is compelling. He’s a fanatic but an incredibly thoughtful one. He’s the Sword of Sheul and he seeks to abide by the Word of Sheul at all times.  He does not give in to Gann (evil), or when he does, he seeks forgiveness and/or understanding.

He had been with many women in his twelve years of Striding (as Master Tsazr had said on that long-ago day, more than he could count), but what of that? He had also gone cheerfully without, not merely for days but for days by the brace. And while there were a few times that he could recall being aware of the lack, for the most part, he seldom thought of women at all if he were not exposed to them. He had felt Gann’s lusts on occasion when traveling but never, never suffered from them. Then again, he had never felt them this way before—dawn to dusk to dawn again, every hour almost unceasing. It was more than temptation; it was torture.

As he and Amber spend more time together, they move from antagonists to tentative friends to feeling unmoored without the other.  Ultimately Meoraq comes to believe that Amber is the gift from God. His feelings toward Amber become so strong that they rival his faith.  What makes their romance all the more incredible is that Meoraq is a biped lizard complete with scales, spines that move with his emotional state, and sex organs unlike humans.  Even more amazing is that when I was reading this book (and even after I was reading other books) Meoraq became the hottest thing around. He’s an amazing alpha hero who would walk through Gann (hell) to be with the one he loves. And he loves Amber despite her physical grotesqueness.

One of the amazing things about this book is making the reader fall in love with the lizardman. And part of the success in doing this is that we only see human features through the eyes of Meoraq and other lizard people. To those, humans are the disgusting ugly ones:

In the meantime, this left him struggling to make sense of a creature who thought all she had to do to talk was move her mouthparts around. And really, what else could they do? A human’s flat face had no snout, which meant no resonance chamber, and Sheul alone knew how hard it must be to make those wriggly little mouthparts shape the sounds those deformed tongues could not. Given their limitations, their absurdly simplistic language was no more than sounds strung together, entirely lacking the subtle nuance and precision of dumaqi.

Another character in the book when viewing Amber can only comment on her name because to the lizardlady (as Amber calls them) that’s the only compliment she can give “Nraqi leaned back, cupping Amber’s face gently between her hands and smiling. “Such a pretty name for…well…such a pretty name!””

As great as Meoraq is, we are shown exactly why he falls for Amber. She’s stubborn but loyal. She’s smart and quick witted.  She wants the best for her sister and feels tremendous guilt at having forced Nicci on the ship with her.  She never, ever gives up.  Never. And more than once saves herself and even Meoraq. I loved her grittiness and her determination.

Amber and Meoraq challenge each other. Amber is an atheist and she scoffs at Meoraq’s devotion to Sheul yet in his darkest hour it is Amber’s faith that carries him through. They both move from an extreme point toward a deeper understanding of the other’s viewpoint.

There are some horrific things that are done to Amber in this story (yes, sexual violence) but I never felt it was gratuitous because this is a story about faith.  There are small and huge tests of faith throughout the story and looking back, I felt what happened to Amber and what happens to Meoraq added heft to conclusions that they arrive at the end of the story.  Meoraq, in particular, is changed by his interaction with Amber and the strength of his feeling for her. It is his love for Amber that makes him question his past judgments and the future of his people.

And it is through Meoraq’s infinite understanding of Amber that we, the reader, are given justification for some of Amber’s most frustrating behaviors (none of which include running into a dark house full of serial killers but mostly relate to her dealings with the humans).

There are so many layers to this story and not all of them good.  Another person reading the story pointed out some problematic gender issues that I didn’t notice when I first read it.  The violence in the story could be too much for some readers and it was painful to read some sections.  But mostly I was blown away by the world in this book that was so full and real that I was there in Sheul with Meoraq and Amber. Their love is epic and there is no doubt at the end of the story that their love will endure because it survived so much how could it not?  Despite the slow beginning, despite the violence, despite even the problematic gender issues, this is an amazing story and one that I know I’ll not only re-read and continue to recommend but one that I’ll remember for years to come.

I texted someone and said in current book blog parlance, “My book boyfriend is a lizardman.” A-

Best regards,

Jane

This book will be our November book club pick.

 

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That Sounds Like Something I’d Hate

That Sounds Like Something I’d Hate

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It is commonly accepted wisdom that controversy sells books. Many people believe that negative reviews can sell books. But what we talk about less is how whether and what the effect might be of this controversial discourse on the genre itself, especially in cases where a lot of the controversy is propelled by those who have not read the books in question.

When I was relatively new to the Romance community, several debates popped up on the AAR boards over what were then controversial books – Her Secret, His Child by Paula Detmer Riggs, and Public Displays of Affection by Susan Donovan. The Riggs book contained a controversial, possible date-rape scene, followed by a secret baby, and Donovan’s book featured an anonymous sex scene between the heroine and a stranger, which occurred while the virgin heroine was on her way to pick up her then-boyfriend from the airport. I haven’t read the Riggs book (although I bought it when the controversy was going on ;D), but I was surprised by the number of shunning comments both got from readers who had not actually read either book.

The heroine in the Donovan book was called a “slut” and the book derided as promoting cheating and loose morals. Ironically, the scene in question occurred between the hero and the heroine of the book. The heroine did go on to marry her then-boyfriend but he died unexpectedly before the main action of the book begins. A young widow with two sons, Charlotte Tasker had led an exemplary, selfless life, with the exception of that side-of-the-road insanity, which she indulged in out of fear that she would never be able to experience thrilling, take-no-prisoners sex with the man she knew was getting ready to propose to her. And, as it turned out, she was correct.

The controversy over the Donovan book was interesting, in part because the book went out of its way to make Charlotte the most giving, upright, self-sacrificing wife and mother possible. She has no idea that the handsome, mysterious man who moves in next door is the guy from the side of the road (but he definitely remembers her). But by making him the hero of the novel, one could argue that the novel is actually containing promoting a more conservative sexual value by containing Charlotte’s sexuality within a second marriage to her first sexual partner. Regardless, there is an interesting ambiguity there that gets missed when you can’t even get past the back and forth of dismissive charges of immorality and sluttish infidelity and fannish defenses of the author, often by those who can’t actually engage the details of the book because they haven’t read it.

As readers, we make judgment calls like this all the time, and we often use reviews and comments by friends and other readers to do it. It is part of the book selection process for many of us, and in a time when readers feel bombarded by author promotion and books from all corners of the writing and publishing marketplace, perhaps it has become an even more common coping mechanism for under-impressed and over-marketed readers. I do feel that there has been a general increase in reader intolerance since self-publishing started to accelerate, in tandem with a diminished tendency to give an iffy sounding book the benefit of the doubt. I struggle with this myself. In fact, I’ve actually had to stop reading samples and excerpts, because some of the books I’ve enjoyed most would have been a no-go had I just decided based on a short, disembodied stretch of text. Sometimes pre-judgment means that we’re going to miss a book we’d actually enjoy, but other times the negative verdict will be justly made.

Let me also say as clearly as possible that I absolutely do not think readers should refrain from positively or negatively commenting on books they have not read. I do not think readers in general have an obligation to read a book before judging it. Nor do we have an obligation to authors to understand books the way they intended to write them. Reading creates a relationship between text and reader that may be wholly different from the relationship the author has with her book – which is part of the alchemical magic of reading and one of the reasons we can endlessly discuss any particular book.

But I do think there’s an increased tendency to reject or dismiss books out of hand these days. And I think it’s especially common when we’re focused on certain types, trends, and patterns in the genre. I recently read a piece written by an author whose books I’ve quite enjoyed, and her argument was based in part on a book she freely admitted she hadn’t read. And I strongly disagreed with the judgment she was making about the book, which in turn affected the way I approached her larger assertions. We ended up having a great discussion about her general argument, but it was in spite of and not because of the example of that unread book. I’m not going to link to the post, because I don’t want to put the author on the spot; as I said, I think we all engage in this behavior to some extent, and I don’t think it’s wrong.

Still, this tendency to judge books without reading them is an aspect of the genre community I’ve always been uncomfortable with, especially because so often the judgment is based on an issue that has political or social importance beyond a single-book portrayal. Take the Donovan book, for example, which implicated the boundaries and “rules” for female sexuality and the double standards men and women face in so-called standards of morality. These are issues we return to again and again in the genre, and they are an important part of our book-based discussions, because Romance is about love and sex and what constitutes a “good” relationship.

The Romance genre is built on all sorts of ethical, moral, social, and political values, which, as readers and authors, we are always in dialogue with. And when we bring books into the shared space of critical discussion, we have the opportunity to reflect on these values – to think about their utility and their appropriateness, their desirability and their limits. And it is often the most complex, important, and troubling issues that require the most careful, detailed, and mindful discussion.

All of which is part of why I wonder what impact these kinds of judgments we sometimes make about books without actually engaging their content have on the very issues we find to be the most vexing.

As we’ve seen over and over, overzealous positive reaction to an author or a book can shut down thoughtful discussion with frighteningly impressive speed. But so can dismissal of a book without actually engaging it. First, it is virtually impossible to talk about a book with someone who hasn’t read it and is convinced it’s a certain way. And second, if the issue is one of great importance to the person making the judgment, there is no real opportunity to ground discussion of that critical issue in textual examples that would a) allow for informed discussion and understanding, and b) create an opportunity for mindful contemplation of that issue’s importance as it is represented in actual books. And the more comfortable we become with judging books without actually engaging them, the further we may fall away from the types of discussions we need more, not less, of.

I don’t have clear answers here. But I do believe strongly that critical debate and analysis is essential to the way the genre shifts and evolves. Not only are so many Romance readers also authors – and active within the community – but I think critical discourse can uncover those otherwise unexamined corners of the collective consciousness in a way that allows us to think about some of our most commonly held and reiterated perceptions about How The World Works and What People Do, and Who We Are, and What We Want To Be, and How Love Works, and How Women and Men Think, etc. Examining these issues in context allows for the kind of deep, specific examination that can challenge assumptions, provoke new insights, and lead to new ways of seeing — and new ways of writing and representing.

Still, I get that we don’t owe it to any book to read it, let alone talk in a shared public space about it. I can also see a version of the boycott argument being made here: that is, we’re not going to read books that are insulting to who we are or what we believe. I will defend that as a reader’s prerogative.

But at some level I wonder how much we can criticize a genre for not being more sensitive to certain issues if we refuse to engage the actual books.

In other words, are we contributing to the very problems we see in the genre by refusing to read the books we judge guilty of perpetuating them?

ETA: Comments have made me realize that I did a very poor job distinguishing between levels and types of judgment in my post.

What I’d call a more passive level of pre-judgment is more along the lines of a tragedy of the commons to me. And it’s more analogous to the example of creating new law I made in my response to hapax:

One of the biggest issues in US law right now is the lack of new law being made from legal issues being tried in the courts. In addition to legislators making law, trials set precedents that themselves become a form of law, often a very important one (think about copyright law, for example, and how outdated it is to our current circumstances). This lack of new law being made is partially a result of 99%+ of cases being settled before they even go to trial. Now, should every plaintiff carry their case to trial for the sake of legal precedent? Of course not! People routinely make the decisions that they perceive to be the best for them. However, our individual choices do have costs associated with them, and that’s what I’m trying to get at here — what are the costs at the general level, are we aware of them or even thinking about them, are they, in fact, working against what we perceive to be our individual interests, and are they ultimately worth it to us?

Then there is a more active level of judgment, where those who haven’t read the book make those judgments publicly, often in forums where the book is being discussed. This is the kind of judgment that I was referring to with my Donovan example and in the first paragraph of my post where I talked about controversy over a book driven in part by people who haven’t read it. That kind of judgment can interfere with critical discussion,depending on the circumstances, as I noted in my post and my reply to Ridley.

In both cases, these judgments may be validated by actually reading a book, or they may be challenged. Not everyone reads the same book the same way, which is one of the reasons I think critical debate about specific books is so important. And as I said a number of times in the post, I don’t think any of these judgments or even the comments are wrong (after all, choice itself is an act of judgment, and we all do it). At the same time, judgments are not without cost, and that’s really what I’m interested in unpacking here. What are the costs, and are we aware we’re paying them, and are they worth it to us?