Monday, March 10, 2014

A Murder of Crows (The Others #2) by Anne Bishop

Meg has built a life for herself among the Others and with Simon – and even has her own human pack. Not that it’s going particularly smoothly, the Others don’t understand the humans, the humans don’t understand the Others and the werewolf Simon has no idea why he can sleep in her bed while wearing fur but not as a naked man. They’re all confused – but they’re learning and they’re trying.

The rest of the country, not so much. Tensions between the Others and the humans are reaching new peaks, especially with the new drugs on the market that seem almost designed to help humans kill the Others. Bodies are piling up, human rhetoric is getting more and more extreme – and the Others are becoming more and more impatient.

The tensions need to be defused before the Others finally snap – and more human cities are reduced to body-littered wastelands.

To me, what really makes this book beyond it’s excellent and well developed world and it’s exciting and engaging story is the characterisation. The way these characters interact and engage with each other is what truly makes the books. Simon’s constant confusion around Meg and her new developed human pack (the Exploding Fluffballs) and the whole community of Others all trying to understand these Humans-Who-Are-Not-Food is delightful to see and adds so much to the world. I have an incredible sense of how the Other culture works, how the different creatures work from the alien Elementals to the fun Crows to the Savage Wolves and the enigmatic Sanguinati  by watching how they navigate around these confusing humans. This book also takes a step in showing how really weird Lakeside is, with the close relationship between humans and Others and adds another sense of how even these confused Others are super-well informed compared to most

But we also see Meg and her own confusion not just with the Others but humanity in general. The more we learn of her story, how the Blood Prophets are abused and kept in captivity, how insulated they are, the stranger and more incredible Meg seems. Not because of her super powers or fighting skills – but because she has endured and learned and grown and built her own life despite overwhelming odds. And, if anything, Meg’s incredible achievement pales next to Jean – defiant while helpless, determined to engineer the downfall of her enemies with a willpower that is awe inspiring. On a much lesser scale, we see the Exploding Fluffballs proving their worth and determination and intelligence over and over again (even if we do have the Others calling periods “female craziness” which does Not Amuse them).

And we have female Others being dangerous and powerful – just so that all this female strength isn’t just the ability to endure and be crafty; in fact Tess is probably the most powerful Other there, excepting the Elementals who, again, are female and terrifying.

And this is definitely a romance I’m enjoying – long, slow burn, full of denial and cluelessness on both parts with lots of very reasonable confusion and cuteness. It really works.

In among all this complexity and humour there is a lot of nuance going on in this world that has some powerful parallels to issues in the real world without any express appropriation. Like the Other’s going to universities and not doing well because the basic building blocks of education aren’t taught to them to the extent of them not even knowing about note taking – and being unable to ask about them because so many humans have deliberately taught them the wrong answers out of spite. Or because not knowing how to correctly use a fork is seen as savagery or stupidity and derided with contempt – because anyone who isn’t brought up knowing exactly how humans do things in Thasian culture is considered ignorant and foolish. Or there’s the criticism of humanity’s anger at the Others for not giving them what they want – enough resources for convenience rather than need, enough land to be wasteful, enough resources for luxury. What’s most powerful about it is when you read the human viewpoints – complaining about rationing, complaining about the water tax, it seems so reasonable because we’ve become so used to excess being regarded as basic necessity; but then you see the Others asking questions and it’s hard to answer them – why should the Others give up more of their land? Why do the humans need more space? Why should the humans take more resources than they need? Why do they need to be wasteful? Why is conserving resources bad? Why should they be allowed to pollute the land and waters? And I’ve got no answer beyond “I wanna”

And it does avoid appropriation. While you have people doing things like denying goods and services to the Others, no-one ever tries to draw a comparison to real world examples with marginalised groups like POC and GBLT people. There’s no attempt to bring them together because the story is so different – the Others aren’t oppressed and if humans keep annoying them they will eat them. It’s excellent that a lot of these issues can be touched on but there’s never even the slightest sense of appropriation.

That’s also not to say the Others are fluffy and nice. They never pretend to be. They’re monsters and they’re predators. They tolerate humans at best – and if humans become intolerable then so be it. They fully believe in collective punishment, they make some effort to single out the bad individuals, but if they think human authorities and the human systems aren’t doing their jobs and fulfilling their agreements then that’s it – that community, all of it, is gone. End of. We end up with a wonderfully complex system of this terrifying, deadly force always on the edge of destroying humanity if humanity doesn’t follow the roles: which should be seen as evil and horrific – but then those rules actually not being all that unreasonable… You get a sense of “you evil savage monsters!” but then you completely lose it in a wave of “for gods sake humans get with the damn program already, it isn’t hard!” It’s really well done in its complexity and layers

This is really well done with the humans themselves. The doctor and Monty don’t agree with what humans are doing in this book – but at the same time neither are happy to help the Others effectively slaughter people either. The conflict is huge and the justifications large – either help the Others kill some or watch as they kill far more. It’s another powerful element of the book, the moral dilemma of those humans keeping the peace with the Others and the destruction they have to aid and abet.

Unfortunately the absence of appropriation also goes with the absence of any kind of Native Americans in this book. The world isn’t our world but it has very very clear parallels and Thaisia is North America – only absent any humans before colonists arrived. No matter how neat it makes your story, removing an entire group of people is not ok, especially not in the context of actual genocidal history, which we’ve said before.

Also, we have a lot of characters and there’s a typical erasure of GBLT people. I’m assuming the Others find GBLT people super-tasty snack food or something. In terms of POC we have Monty a Black man and the police liaison with the Others –and he is an interesting character. He has his own family and his own worries and is constantly caught between the humans and the Others. It’s through his eyes we see the alien-ness of the Others, the need to placate them, frustration with humans who won’t follow the rules but also his unease with his boss for his seeming willingness to do anything to keep the Others on side. He’s nuanced and complex – and he’s almost as responsible as Meg for reaching the accord they have in Lakeside.

In some ways the story falls into the background. Not because the story isn’t great – it is; the quest to find the source of the drugs and to stop all out war breaking out is well written, well paced and all round good. The battle to keep the peace is wonderful and layered – but, ultimately, if the peace fails it won’t be Simon and Meg who suffer for it; it will be humanity. They’re fighting against humans to save humans from the inevitable mainly which is still epic, but not personally urgent compared to the excellent development of the characters and the world.

The first book was awesome. This book takes that awesome and runs with it, bring more of the awesome along the way. I’m just left bereft because I have to wait for book 3 – that’s just cruel. We need more of the Meg!