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“I suck at being tragic.”

“I suck at being tragic.” published on

My laptop’s broken and the back-up drive Mom ordered me is late showing up and they cast a bunch of white kids for the Avatar movie (and actually I don’t acknowledge its existence, so forget I said anything) and I forgot to give the dog his pill this morning and the pants I ordered don’t fit.

But Dad’s arch-nemesis outbid him at a Christmukkah charity auction, and it was hilarious. Everyone else there found their feud so entertaining that the bidding was much higher on subsequent items than it had been on earlier ones, and they set a record for the auction. (Dad to the organizer: “Make sure his check clears.”)

Broken laptop means I am re-reading old books, because I am saving Flora’s Dare for some time when I’m not all grumpy. Yesterday it was Son of the Shadows, one of Juliet Marillier’s Sevenwaters books, which are fantasy-romance novels involving froofy Druids and curses and really bad dialog.

The first book, Daughter of the Forest worked pretty well as a romance. I think this is partly because the heroine couldn’t talk. Marillier’s a good writer in a lot of other regards, but for some reason, she can’t seem to handle dialog between her heroines and their love interests. Here’s how Liadan and Bran, the heroine and hero from Son of the Shadows, talk to each other:

“No! You can’t do this! You can’t just – finish him off as if he were some snared rabbit or a sheep to be slaughtered for the pot. This is a man here. One of your own.”

“Where did you learn of life? In some fairy tale? We live by the code. We have no names, no past, no future.”

“Already you believe me some kind of monster. You are indeed quick to assess a man’s character.”

“As are you to judge a woman.”

“I need not know you, to recognize what you are. Your kind are all the same. Catch a man in your net, draw him in, deprive him of his will and his judgment. It happens so subtly he is lost before he ever recognizes the danger.”

See, Marillier has a pretty good sense of how melodramatic she can go without sounding ridiculous most of the time – she can do the wise old spirits of the earth and guys getting turned into swans perfectly convincingly. But the romantic parts of the book are persistently and aggravatingly awkward.

Probably the biggest problem here is that the love interest’s characterization doesn’t make any sense. We’re supposed to believe that Bran hates women because one betrayed him in some terrible way, and that he distrusts Liadan in specific because her father did something terrible that caused him to lose his family and become an outlaw at a young age. A lot of suspense is built up about what his terrible secret is, but when we get to it, it’s literally incomprehensible (spoilers below the cut):

Apparently, his mother was killed by bandits when he was three, and a guy found him and abused him. He believes that his mother abandoned him to this guy. Yet simultaneously, he also believes that Liadan’s father is at fault for his mother’s murder. So there’s a continuity issue here. And Liadan’s father is supposed to be at fault because he used to rule the country where the incident took place, but then left, which, uh, somehow allowed Bad Stuff to happen? This strikes me as a rather watery excuse for eternal hatred of a man you’ve never met. (And they’d never met.)

Also, Bran blames Liadan’s mother for his father’s death, because he died protecting her from a rockfall – also not much of an excuse. And in another bizarre continuity blip, it’s later established that he doesn’t remember enough about his parents to know how his father died. He also believes that he was an unwanted child and his father didn’t love him – hence, apparently, his many speeches about how he lives in a world where love is forbidden – so it’s not absolutely clear why he would care.

Also also, Abusive Guy hated Liadan’s father for banishing him from the kingdom (he came back), and imparted that hatred to Bran. Except that Bran killed Abusive Guy at the age of nine, and states at one point his determination never to be like him. His hatred for sex is supposed to stem partly his desire to differentiate himself from Abusive Guy, whom he saw sleeping with a woman once. I think he might reasonably be expected not to take Abusive Guy’s words to heart here.

Even when I was thirteen, I didn’t buy this. It would be possible to play Bran’s apparent ability to believe several different things at once as a psychological problem – that would have made a pretty good book, I think. But none of the other characters ever notice the contradictions, either, so that’s clearly not what Marillier was going for. I assume she just wasn’t paying attention. She hadn’t formulated the character any further than Dangerous Broody Man, so she ended up with a lot of continuity problems that she didn’t notice, and a romance that’s only convincing when the hero’s off-screen. Because the scenes when Liadan is separated from him and pregnant and missing him are really pretty good – it’s just impossible to connect them to the actual person presented.

I would say, “Maybe Marillier should do a fantasy book where nobody falls in love,” except that I don’t immediately recall any romance happening in the last book in the series, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t very good. We shall find out if I can’t get my laptop fixed.

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