I decided I really needed a reading change of pace, and I wanted something that I knew would be good. Michael Nava’s mystery series featuring California lawyer Henry Rios had been on my wish list for a long time, and the books finally showed up in ebook format this year. I climbed into bed with the dogs (TheH is away), downloaded the sample and read it, immediately bought the book, and made myself put it down a third of the way through. I finished it the next day at the first chance I had.
The Little Death introduces the reader to Henry Rios, a 33-year-old Linden Law (read: Stanford Law) grad who is working as a public defender. He’s assigned to the PD’s office in Palo Alto, which sounds like it would be interesting, right? Not in the 1980s, the era in which this book is set. Rios has been exiled to the Palo Alto branch from the central San Jose office because of fallout from a high-profile case. Palo Alto is sleepy, suburban, and generally uninteresting, and Rios has been demoted from felony trials to arraignment court.
But his boring job suddenly perks up when he represents Hugh Paris, distaff member of the wealthy and powerful family that established Linden University in Palo Alto and that still wields an enormous amount of influence in the region and the state. Paris is a drug addict who was arrested for possession and resisting arrest, but he’s also gorgeous, charismatic, and immensely appealing. He’s quickly bailed out by a “John Smith” and Rios thinks that’s the end of it, but Paris shows up on his doorstep asking for help. Rios gives him that and a bit more, and they begin a tentative affair. He knows this can’t end well, but he doesn’t realize how quickly and how badly it will end until Paris is discovered face down in a creek, apparently having committed suicide.
The relationship ends, and the investigation begins. Rios is convinced it wasn’t suicide because Paris suspected that someone was out to get him. As Rios slowly starts to unravel Paris’s history and the circumstances surrounding his death, the circle of people involved and at risk widens.
ALERT #1: SPOILERS AHOY FOR CAPTIVE PRINCE VOLS. 1 & 2. READ ON AT YOUR OWN RISK.
ALERT #2: THIS IS A LONG-ASS POST. GRAB A CUP OF COFFEE OR WHATEVER KEEPS YOU AWAKE.
In a previous post I discussed my discomfort with the way slavery is ever-present in Captive Prince, and especially the use of slavery as part of the Orientalist presentation of Vere. In this post I talk more about why slavery is a hot button for me, generally and in this book, as well as other things that made my reading experience less than optimal.
I want to note up front that I am talking here about the portrayal of institutional slavery and the mindset of slaves, not an individual master-slave relationship. I think a good author can make an individual relationship fascinating and avoid the traps of exploitation and stereotyping. But slavery as an institutional backdrop and an often casual treatment of how slaves think about their condition in a book that readers are asserting is “not really slavefic” is what really pisses me off. Yes, it’s an m/m romance. But it also falls within the category of slavefic, just as it falls within the category of historical fantasy.
SPOILERS UNDER THE CUT.
[ALERT ALERT: There are massive spoilers for Volume 2 in the comments thread. There are no spoilers in the post, and you will not see spoilers when you scroll down to the bottom of the post. You have to read through the first few comments before you get to them, and the first ones are marked. ]
This story showed up in my corner of Romlandia through two separate channels: First, it is quite popular in the m/m community and there has been a thread on it at GR for years. Second, Supacat (S.U. Pacat, get it?) is friends with a writer who is friends with friends of mine who are in my tweetstream and whose blogs I follow. That’s two degrees of separation, but all it takes is a couple of blog posts and tweets and soon it’s all over my part of Twitter. I tried the Kindle sample and found the writing and the premise weren’t enough to make me immediately download the first volume, but the chatter on Twitter didn’t subside and the enthusiasm from such disparate reader communities made me wonder if this might not be the Next Big Thing. So I gave it another shot.
I made it through the first four chapters of the online version, thought for a while, and then downloaded Volume 1 of Captive Prince to my Kindle.
Please note: This is not a review. These comments are from my reading of the first half of the book only.
Things could change later on, and I’ll certainly read to the end of this installment. I’m thinking out loud here, so bear with me. I’ll post again once I’m done with Volume 1.
I’m still having trouble seeing what readers are so taken with. It’s decently written, although I’ve discovered that the adverb abuse is accompanied by rampant comma abuse. I need Liz Mc2 to tell me what the proper names are for the sentence clauses and constructions; all I know is that Supacat has an inordinate love for the split subject/verb. She splits them with clauses, she splits them with commas, and she likes to break up the flow of a sentence with extra (optional?) commas. I itched to remove the commas and rearrange the sentences. I’m a fan of dividing subject and verb with a modifying clause, but I think the technique is a bit like truffle oil: delicious when used sparingly but annoying in quantity.
OK, so the plot and characters. Damen is a prince/heir to the throne from Sparta I mean Akielos who is sold as a slave to the ruler of Byzantium/France I mean Vere. In the original fanfic B/F is called Rabat, but in the ebook the name is changed to Vere. Vere is full of people and places with French-sounding names but it also has arches and tiles and lots of gold and jewels and a harem, so hello Byzantium.
Jessewave wrote a post at her highly influential site about the frustration she and her reviewers are experiencing with respect to the decline in quality of m/m books. The post is blunt and the comment thread is long, but if you read m/m, it’s well worth reading both.
Like Wave, I find myself reading fewer and fewer m/m books, despite the fact that my pleasure in finding a good one hasn’t decreased. There are a number of reasons.
(1) It’s hard to find books that are properly edited, and the rise of self-published books has exacerbated the problem. Given that my TBR has plenty of well-edited books, I’d rather not be frustrated while I’m reading for pleasure.
(2) It’s harder to use publishers to sort through the mass of releases. Well-established presses’ development and copyediting have declined, the fastest-growing seems to have imploded, and the biggest has, um, ethical issues. Not to mention it doesn’t seem to edit its “stars” at all. Some smaller and newer presses have much better business practices and production values, but they publish fewer books and specialize in sub-genres that don’t interest me.
(3) I can’t tell the provenance of a book and I can’t be sure anymore that it’s original fiction. More and more fan fiction is being published. I’ve talked before (and will talk again) about why I find reading published fan fiction problematic, and if I can’t be sure something is original I’m much less likely to buy it. At this point the only presses I’m sure about are a few small presses. All the big presses (including ones I used to trust) have hopped on the fanfic gravy train.
(4) I’m tired of the woman-bashing. Women are evil plot devices, BFFs of the narrator/main character who exist to be sounding boards or comic relief. Generally they can’t get a date or you don’t want them to. It’s lazy, stereotypical writing and no mature genre with standards would put up with it. And that’s if there are women in the books at all. I just finished a short novel in which there are no on-page women. Granted, that may be because the entire word count was taken up by sex scenes, but having no women in a contemporary romance is quite a feat.
Now that I’m back teaching after a short hiatus, I am reminded that teaching means grading. You might think that as a professor at a research university who is blessed with Teaching Assistants, I don’t grade. You would be wrong. I’ve been told that I should leave the grading to the TAs, but when I do I have less of a sense of how the students are doing. What are they getting wrong? What are they getting right? If I don’t know, then I can’t tell whether my teaching is resulting in their learning. It is, after all, an interactive process. So I grade. And yes, like all professors the world over, I Hate To Grade.
This semester’s courses feature in-class written exams, which means reading students’ handwriting. For the most part, student handwriting is pretty awful. I believe the reports that say handwriting has become worse over the years. So I was taken by Philip Hensher’s thoughts about the role of handwriting in a digital age, especially what we might be losing by abandoning it:
We have surrendered our handwriting for something more mechanical, less distinctively human, less telling about ourselves and less present in our moments of the highest happiness and the deepest emotion. Ink runs in our veins, and shows the world what we are like. The shaping of thought and written language by a pen, moved by a hand to register marks of ink on paper, has for centuries, millennia, been regarded as key to our existence as human beings. In the past, handwriting has been regarded as almost the most powerful sign of our individuality. In 1847, in an American case, a witness testified without hesitation that a signature was genuine, though he had not seen an example of the handwriting for 63 years: the court accepted his testimony.
Handwriting is what registers our individuality, and the mark which our culture has made on us. It has been seen as the unknowing key to our souls and our innermost nature.
I don’t agree with everything he says, but I’m intrigued enough to look forward to reading his book. I still write by hand, even though I do a lot of composing onscreen. I take notes, I transcribe from archives (when computers aren’t allowed or easily used), and I write longhand when I’m having trouble at the computer. When I journal, I can only do it longhand. I’ve used fountain pens for decades, and I still write with them despite the ink-explosion risk (beware on airplanes).