Earlier today, I had the pleasure to listen to Love Among the Talus by Elizabeth Bear. In many ways, it's a brilliant story: extremely well-written and in a very striking voice, with neat characters, excellent pacing, and set in an interesting world. Despite having very little actual sex, it's an extremely sexy story, lush and sensuous and full if simmering tension. However, it's also flawed in two ways that I found particularly worth talking about.
A while ago I wrote about being scooped. My thesis: if you discover that someone else has written something that you want to write, write it anyway. Humanity has been telling stories for so long that it's pretty much a fool's errand to write something totally new. The point isn't to write it, it's to write it well, or to bring a new perspective to an old story. Old is the new new. Or the old new. Or the new old. Or something.
For all that is was generally brilliant, Love Among the Talus managed to be predictable in a bad way. The main character was a powerful girl in trying times, suspended between her treacherous mother, her overlord's son, and the handsome bandit prince who wants to carry her away and give her freedom. She finds her balance by... well, I'll try not spoil anything, but let's just say that a secondary character I thought was interesting dies in a way I found cheap and she doesn't marry anyone. For all the love in the title, there's actually very little love in the story; just a lot of murder.
I'm all for powerful female characters making their own way. It's a neat story, but we've come to a place where there's a way to tell that story that's interesting and a way to tell it that's kind of boring. For me, the powerful girl has developed as much potential for staleness as sword-wielding iron-thewed Conan He-Men.
The second weakness of Love Among the Talus is right there in the name. One of the central characters of Love Among the Talus are the Talus. They're these sort of enormous rocky land-whales who the locals have trained to eat ores and poop metal. While this is really neat (I'm totally going to steal them for my next Exalted game) they don't actually do anything. In my opinion, all the wordcount the author uses to describe the Talus, their beautiful singing, and their rocky hides could probably have been better spent.
But don't shy away. Love Among the Talus is definitely worth listening to, and not just in a train-wreck way. As I wrote above, it's a beautiful, sexy, well-paced little tale, and lots of fun.
Just not perfect.
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Ok, I admit it. That was a pretty weak full-circle.