Trick or Treat

I thought Tamora Pierce’s first novel about Beka Cooper was pretty good. Haven’t read the second one yet. While browsing in our Friends of the Library used bookstore, I spotted a two-in-one hardback called Tricksters (containing her Trickster’s Choice and Trickster’s Queen). For a buck, how could I go wrong?

You can’t always tell a book by its cover. Tricksters has possibly the cheesiest cover art I’ve ever seen on a commercially published hardback. (To be fair, the yellows are brighter than you’re seeing here.)

tricksters

But the novel could be terrific, right? Alas, no.

Sixteen-year-old Aly is terrifically smart and not a little impetuous. She wants to be a spy, but her father (who operates the spy network) says no. Oh, and she comes home from college with blue hair. Blue hair in a Medieval-style story with horses and castles and swords and such? Really? But this is a Young Adult story; we’ll cut Pierce some slack on the hair.

Aly sets off in a boat — solo sailing on the open ocean. Not smart. Her jaunt is swiftly interrupted when she’s captured by pirates and sold into slavery. Now, being captured and sold into slavery would be very, very traumatic, right? But Pierce doesn’t actually show us what happens. She tells us about it afterward. Omitting a deeply emotional event that moves the plot forward: not a highly recommended technique for the canny author.

So Aly, whose godparents are the king and queen of her homeland, is now a slave, complete with a magical metal collar that will choke her if she tries to run away. But she steals a dagger (slaves are not permitted such things, obviously) and cheerfully imagines that she’ll be home with her parents by autumn. She’s bought by a good family of nobles. Break out the waterproof hip boots: We’re now wading knee-deep in the YA swamp.

The good nobles are sent into exile by the mad king of this other land, so they sell most of their household slaves, keeping only a dozen or so (plus the free servants, plus the men-at-arms) and board a ship for their country castle, which is high up in the jungle mountains.

Aly is now the child-minder for the two younger noble children, and has made friends with the two elder daughters. When Aly is out tending the goats, the noble girls wander out into the countryside to chat with her. The two noble girls seem entirely oblivious to the class structure of their society. They’re modern teenagers, is what it amounts to.

A god has recruited Aly to keep these two girls safe from harm; by the hints we’re given, it’s not hard to guess that the elder of the two is going to end up as the queen. Why a god would recruit a 16-year-old girl with a stolen dagger to guard his chosen queen-in-waiting is, shall we say, a bit obscure. He could perhaps have found a stalwart young man with a sword. But whatever. This is YA.

We step into the mucky sinkhole of my metaphorical swamp on page 94. I invite you to contemplate her interaction with one of the old slaves:

Lokeij gripped the back of Aly’s neck with a friendly hand. “A word of advice. Slaves aren’t so knowledgeable about history,” he murmured. “Not unless you’ve been specially educated and sold as a tutor. Are you a tutor?”

Aly smiled at him. “That’s so sweet,” she replied. “My da always said my brains were too big for my head.”

Lokeij looked into her face, his rheumy dark eyes inspecting her almost pore by pore. “If I were you, little parrot, I’d rub dirt in my bright feathers and work harder to pass for a sparrow,” he said.

Aly spread her tunic, streaked with grass and mud stains. “The goats have taken care of that, don’t you think? I’m sparrowing already,. Chirp. Tweet.” She winked at him….

Here we have a young noblewoman who has been sold into slavery. She is receiving a friendly warning from an older slave: Carrying on the way she has been reveals too much. She could get herself into serious trouble. Like, you know, dead. And what does she do? She makes a joke of it and then winks.

The lesson in this for aspiring writers is clear: Your lead character must take her situation seriously! Yes, your heroine can be 16 years old, spunky as all get-out, smart enough to match wits with a god, and endowed with whatever superpower you like — but when she’s in danger, she must take the danger seriously. She must worry. Even when putting on a bold front, she must feel the fear.

If she doesn’t take her predicament seriously, your readers won’t.

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The Rudiments

When a writer has become successful, there is always, I suspect (I wouldn’t know), a temptation to think, “Oh, the basics of good writing no longer apply to me. I know what I’m doing.”

This temptation seems to have gotten the better of Guy Gavriel Kay in the writing of his novel The Lions of Al-Rassan. It’s 500 pages long, and I slogged through 400 pages before deciding it would be a waste of time to read the last hundred pages. Too much had gone wrong. I just didn’t care anymore.

To begin with, there’s an enormous amount of telling in this novel. Novice writers are generally advised, “Show, don’t tell.” There are certainly exceptions to the rule. Sometimes you have to tell. One of those exceptions, arguably, comes into play when your story is an epic depicting a great sweeping historical drama. In such a case, yes, a few judicious pages of telling may be necessary. And indeed, Lions is a great sweeping historical drama. But there’s just too much telling in it.

I open nearly at random to page 266. From 266 through to 269 we’re treated to more than 1,000 words of straight-up telling. I could quote you the whole thing, but it would numb my typing hands as thoroughly as it would numb your brain. Let’s peek at a few bits and then hurry on. The paragraphs open as follows: “There were also winter entertainments of esoteric variety….” “The Jaddite taverns were always crowded in winter, despite the imprecations of the wadjis. At court, in the taverns, in the better homes, poets and musicians….” “There were even some entertaining wadjis to be found in the smaller out-of-the-way temples, or on street corners….” “Many of the higher-born women of Cartada enjoyed attending upon these ragged, wild-eyed figures in the morning, to be pleasantly frightened….” “It was not at all a bad place to be in the cold season, Cartada. This remained true….” “Almalik I had governed Cartada for the khalifs of Silvenes for three years, and then reigned as king for fifteen….” “Now there was, and the prevailing view seemed to be….” “Nor was the new king a weakling, by all early appearances….” “A number of the more visibly corrupt of the officials had already been dealt with….” “There were some of this sort at every court….” “Those apprehended officials who were not yet castrates had been gelded before execution….” “New officials were appointed from the appropriate families….”

It goes on like this, almost interminably. To be fair, more than half of the book consists of dramatic episodes, not exposition, but some of the dramatic episodes seem oddly irrelevant. Queen Ines is shot with a poisoned arrow, but after a number of pages in which she almost dies and then recovers, the incident seems to have been forgotten. It doesn’t lead anywhere. Jehane, the lady doctor who is the lead character of the book, is courted (urbanely, not in a pushy way) by the chancellor of King Badir, but then the chancellor switches his attentions to the exiled Queen Zabira, who is more receptive. And so what? Assassins attempt to kill Zabira’s two young sons, and the assassins are thwarted and killed. And so what? Rodrigo and his men massacre a bunch of other men and steal a bunch of gold — but is the gold important? No. Does Rodrigo’s character change as a result? No. Some other assassins try to take out Rodrigo, but they only manage to kill Jehane’s faithful servant Velaz. And so what? Though Velaz has been trotting along in Jehane’s footsteps for 350 pages, he has never become a real character; he’s what writers call a red shirt — the anonymous crew member who beams down to the planet with Kirk and Spock but will shortly die.

It would be wrong to say there’s no rising action in the story. At the point where I set the book aside in disgust, a major battle is clearly about to erupt, a battle that has been brewing from the beginning (or really for centuries before that). The problem is that the characters’ actions have little or no impact on the main historical arc of the story. The arc of the story would proceed with or without these particular characters. Lions is about history, not about people.

There are, to be sure, people in the book. The central characters are Jehane, her lover Ammar (another assassin, by the way; also a renowned poet), and the mercenary Captain Rodrigo Belmonte. I stopped reading for two related reasons. First, these three have no realistic hope of halting the enormous battle that is about to erupt. It’s going to roll right over them. Even if they (bizarrely) manage to stop this battle, the historical forces that led to it are still in play, so there will be another titanic battle a few years down the road. Not even a naked deus ex machina could produce a happy ending using these ingredients. Second, and even more important, they’re not very interesting characters. I didn’t find myself liking or caring about them.

Putting these three factors together — tons of telling, actions that could have been deleted without changing the story, and characters who are rather shallow, powerless to change the outcome, and not very likable — and you have a book that violates what is arguably the most basic precept of fiction writing:

Thou shalt not bore thy reader.

A novelist can get away with almost anything, as long as he or she doesn’t ride roughshod over that precept.

I’ve liked some of Kay’s other novels. This one is a sore disappointment. After setting it down, I picked up the first book of Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Sharing Knife. In two days, I’ve read the first two books in that series. Couldn’t put them down. Characters you like and care about, and not a speck of telling anywhere. It’s all showing. The first volume seems a little light, but the second picks up the pace, and it’s easy to see that the third is going to launch into high gear pretty quickly.

Sorry, Guy. Not oh-Kay.

 

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Butcher Block

Human history is a dreadfully bloody affair. Few readers above the age of 12 would want to read a fictionalized history in which all is sweetness and light. Wholesale butchery, however, is not very attractive in a story. One wants the hacking and slashing to be leavened with a healthy dollop of hope.

I want that, anyhow, and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one.

I’ve been reading Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Lions of Al-Rassan. I’m about halfway through it, and I’m asking myself whether I want to go on. Kay is a fine writer, so I probably will. But I’d be lying if I said I’m enjoying the story.

Lions is set in an alternate-history Europe, in what we would call the late Middle Ages or early Renaissance. It’s not really Europe, it’s just a whole lot like Europe, and he’s quite content to have you understand the parallels. In place of the Islamic sphere, he gives us the Asharites, who worship the stars. In place of Christianity, we have the Jaddites, who worship Jad, the sun god. And in place of the Jews (sort of — the parallel is very loose) we have the Kindath, who worship the two moons. Both the Asharites and the Jaddites discriminate viciously against the Kindath.

The story is set in a western peninsula called Esperana. (Spain, in effect.) Historically, southern Spain was part of the Islamic sphere until 1492, when Ferdinand and Isabella finally drove the Muslims out and made all of Europe Christian. Kay has given us a loose equivalent. Esperana is partly Asharite, partly Jaddite, and there’s going to be a war.

But who is the reader supposed to root for? The Asharites in the desert across the strait (that is, they’re sort of in North Africa) are a monstrous crew. An Asharite prince from Esperana has appeared before their leaders to request their aid, and the leader cuts off the prince’s hand. Why? Because he’s impolite and not pious enough.

On the other side, the Jaddites to the north of Esperana are planning what we can’t call a crusade, no cross being involved, to invade the Asharites’ homeland in the east. On the way they have paused to butcher a whole city full of Kindath, a people who only want to be left alone.

There are no good guys in this story, and that’s a big problem.

The main characters in the novel are a captain of mercenaries and an assassin. They’re the good guys. They have just tricked and butchered a bunch of soldiers who were trying to transport casks full of gold. No surrender, no ransom, just wholesale butchery. And these are the good guys.

Looking down the road, I’m guessing that the novel will conclude with a gigantic battle between the Asharites and the Jaddites. And do I care who wins? No, I do not. As in real life, both sides are equally contemptible.

First-year students of fiction-writing are taught that your lead character should be likable. The lead should be a person readers can identify with, at least a little. They should be rooting for the lead, hoping he or she reaches a happy ending. Kay seems to have forgotten that precept. The conflict in Esperana is not going to have a happy ending.

There’s lots of hacking and slashing, though. Horses falling into pits lined with spears. Guys having their heads whacked off with one blow of a sword. A battlefield surgeon sawing off a man’s leg to save him. What jolly fun we humans are!

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Laugh Like Hell

Is it because we all see what we’re expecting to see? Or is it numbness of the soul? That’s the puzzle.

In my collection I have a dozen novels by Kurt Vonnegut. Probably all of them except Player Piano, which was his first. Most of them I bought when they first came out.

This week I thought I’d re-read a couple of them. He was one of a kind. Nobody else ever wrote like that, or is likely to. I re-read Bluebeard, and then turned to Hocus Pocus.

Here’s what’s odd:

On the back cover of the paperback are laudatory quotes from various book reviews. The fact that they’re laudatory is not odd. What’s odd is that the reviewers pretty consistently seem to have thought it was a funny book.

Terms used on the back cover (excerpting the already brief excerpts here) include “hilarious,” “comic,” “really funny,” “absurd humor,” and “comedy.” Inside the front cover, we learn that the Playboy reviewer said, “Vonnegut evokes the cynical chortle, the knowing grin, the inner laughter that soothes our troubled reflections.” The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that Hocus Pocus is “very funny indeed.”

Nothing in the book is even remotely funny. It’s a grim and biting satire about the Vietnam War, the dismal state of higher education, the U.S. prison system, the heedless, vicious vacuousness of the rich, and the random damage that life does to us all. Human existence stands revealed as meaningless — filled with suffering and the flimsy scraps of self-delusion. There’s not a ray of sunshine anywhere.

Oh, about my title for this little essay? One of the narrator’s friends in the novel reacts to almost everything by saying, “I had to laugh like hell.” He never even cracks a smile while saying it.

Calling the novel satire doesn’t quite do it justice. Some bits of it are exaggerated wildly, but those bits lie cheek by jowl with incidents that aren’t exaggerated at all. It’s a fine novel — Vonnegut at his best. But what book were all those reviewers reading? Was it so painful that they had to convince themselves it had nothing to do with real life?

Probably that’s it.

Terry Pratchett’s novels are funny. Hocus Pocus is not funny, it’s sad. I don’t know if Vonnegut ever wrote a funny book, actually. He was a survivor of a prison camp in World War II, and he carried the sadness of that war with him for the rest of his life. Today we’d call it PTSD.

Some veterans turn to drugs and alcohol. Some commit suicide. A few bang their memories into ploughshares and write novels.

So it goes.

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Calyx and Flake

Give a book 125 pages. When I pick up a new novel, that’s my rule. After 125 pages, you can safely assume that you understand the essence of the author’s vision. At that point you can make an informed decision about whether to continue.

I don’t always follow the rule, of course. After only a dozen pages, I could tell that Cory Doctorow’s Rapture of the Nerds wasn’t going anywhere that I wanted to go, so I dropped it.

Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, though — I felt certain it deserved 125 pages to unfold itself. Atwood is one of those serious mainstream authors, you know. She can’t be expected to reach out and grab the unwary reader on page 3. I’m always happy to see mainstream authors writing science fiction, and of course Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is something of a classic.

After 125 pages, though, I’ve had enough.

Something bad has happened. Civilization has ended. Bio-engineered animals (wolvog, rakunk, and so on) are running wild in the ruins of the cities. The few humans who remain seem to be of an entirely new species, and they seem to be remarkably innocent. They’re vegetarians, for one thing, and naked, and they seem to know nothing of what happened before everything went kerflooey.

But they hardly exist as separate characters; they’re just scenery. The main character is Snowman. His name used to be Jimmy, but that was when he was younger. We gather that he’s the last remaining human from the old days. Given the sheer amount of land surface on Earth, that seems very unlikely, but the story is set in Snowman’s immediate surroundings, and he seems to have no curiosity at all about what may be happening anywhere else.

He sleeps in a tree, on account of the wolvogs. He wears only a tattered sheet. When it rains, he gets cold and wet. The new humans revere him as a prophet of their god/goddess figures, Oryx and Crake. Both Oryx and Crake seem to have been real people that Snowman/Jimmy knew. Crake’s real name was Glenn. Oryx’s real name is unknown. They seem to be gone now.

At least 3/4 of the first 125 pages is flashback to earlier times. Jimmy and Glenn were teenagers in a high-security compound where bio-engineering was the main occupation of the adults. Jimmy and Glenn watch pornography on the Internet. Jimmy’s mother runs away. There’s nothing very remarkable about all this material. It’s well written, to be sure; it’s just not interesting.

In the post-Apocalypse present day, Snowman is just a pathetic old coot. In one scene he gets drunk and worries that he won’t be able to find any more booze in the ruins. I don’t mind reading about a pathetic old coot if he has a driving motivation of some kind that will propel the plot, but that’s not the case here. There’s no plot. None. The only reason anybody would keep reading would be to find out how exactly it all went kerflooey — and since Atwood is no better at predicting the future than any other science fiction writer, that’s not a good enough reason.

At the point where I bailed out, Oryx has strolled into the flashback. She and Jimmy are eating pizza and having sex. How he met her … we don’t know that yet. And who cares? She seems to have been, before the two of them met, an Asian child prostitute. Some of the flashback is about how her mother sold her to a man, because the family needed money.

As grim as all this is, who cares? I don’t need to read a novel that’s nothing but a nonstop barrage of grim and gloomy, with not a shred of plot to give the reader a sense of hope. I have no more reason to go on than Snowman does.

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it something noun

Maybe because I’m in need of an intellectually stimulating diversion, or maybe just because a guy emailed me and said he has enjoyed the text adventure games I’ve written in the past, I thought I’d get out my half-finished magnum opus and think about digging into it again. One fan is all it takes to get me excited, folks.

The game is called “The Only Possible Prom Dress.” It’s a sequel to my first game (written back in 1998), “Not Just an Ordinary Ballerina.” The details of the story need not concern us at present, nor do I intend today to lay out the history of interactive fiction for those who have never encountered it and have no idea what I’m talking about. (The terms “interactive fiction” and “text adventures” mean pretty much the same thing.) Today I mainly wanted to give a shout-out to Eric Eve, who developed the adv3Lite library for the TADS 3 authoring system. I’m using adv3Lite, and it is so very, very effective!

Possibly nobody else in the world is using it at the moment. TADS 3 is not popular even among the tiny community of nerds and shut–ins who care about text adventures, either writing or playing the games. The popular development system is known as Inform 7.

I’ve started to think that Inform 7 wasn’t just a conceptual mistake. It may also have undermined the whole field of interactive fiction. Inform 7 attempts to make writing games easier. It’s a programming language in which, ostensibly, you can write computer code using plain English. A phrase such as “the red ball is on the table” is not simply a sentence in your story. It is literally computer code, and will be understood by the compiler. If the object called “red ball” has not been mentioned previously, this line creates the red ball.

This idea is seductive. “Look, it’s easy! You can write a text adventure without having to know anything about that nasty old computer programming stuff!” Unfortunately, it’s a lie.

This week on the interactive fiction forum, there was a thread about how to code a particular rule in Inform. The point of confusion that arose has to do with whether the author can use the word “it” in the rule, as opposed to “the noun” or “something” or “the topic understood”. Apparently, the compiler is not consistent. Sometimes “it” works. Other times, in a rule that would appear to be constructed in much the same way, the compiler will complain that it doesn’t know what “it” refers to.

This level of confusion simply doesn’t arise in adv3Lite, nor in adv3, the original library for TADS 3. TADS 3 is a C-type language. Identifiers are never ambiguous. The syntax is never ambiguous. Sure, you can write code that fails to compile (or that does compile but has bugs), and you may have to dive into the documentation to figure out where you went astray. But in TADS your mistake is never swaddled in gobbledygook.

Still, there are easily 20 times more people using Inform. I feel sorry for them.

Writing a text adventure is not a stroll in the park. You need to be a writer and a programmer both. And not just a programmer. Because you’re creating a model world, you have to think very, very carefully about all of the conditions that might arise in your world, and all the goofy things players may try to do. If you give the player character a book of matches, you have to consider that he or she may try burning absolutely anything. Your game will need to handle that possibility gracefully, printing out a sensible message of refusal. If Mary is wearing a hat but the hat can be removed, you have to write your description of Mary in such a way that the description can switch itself, depending on whether or not the hat is on her head.

Multiply that thought process by about 500 and you have maybe some idea what writing text adventures is all about. It’s entirely enough of a challenge without having to worry whether to use “it”, “something”, or “the noun”.

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Anarchism with Spoilers

If you could bring a historical figure back to life, not for your own personal amusement but for the good of the world, who would it be? This question seems to have been the mainspring of The Watch, by Dennis Danvers.

His choice was Peter Kropotkin, an activist, scientist, and philosopher whose writings helped bring about the Russian Revolution. Kropotkin died in 1921 at the age of 78. He lived just long enough after the Revolution to see the beginnings of what The Who would later describe as “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

In The Watch, a time traveler from the far future extracts Kropotkin at the moment of his death, lets him keep all his memories but gives him back his vigorous 32-year-old body, and plops him down in Richmond, Virginia, in 1999. (Danvers lives in Richmond, and the novel was published in 2002.)

Kropotkin has no money, but he soon has a job as a dishwasher, a small circle of idealistic young friends, and even a girlfriend. He also meets a couple of other temporally displaced men from earlier in Richmond’s history.

There’s not much of a plot, other than Kropotkin’s growing mistrust of the time traveler who has set up the whole affair. This mistrust is crucial to what happens later. Kropotkin is very concerned that he is being manipulated by the time traveler, an imperturbable fellow named Anchee. As the story goes on, he finds evidence of this manipulation.

What’s interesting about the story is to read the reactions of a committed Russian anarchist to the culture of modern Richmond, a city with a substantial black population, much of it very poor, and an unwavering civic pride in having been, briefly, the capital of the Confederate States of America. Danvers handles Kropotkin’s slightly archaic and sometimes befuddled voice very well; his situation reminded me a bit of the innocent at the center of Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There, except that in Being There, the main character (at least in the movie — I haven’t read the book) is a dimwit. Kropotkin is formidably bright and articulate.

The fictional Kropotkin’s observations of modern life hit the nail on the head. While I’m a lot more cynical than he is about human nature, I appreciate both his idealism and his activism. While working as a dishwasher, he starts saving wasted food from the restaurant and taking it downtown to feed the homeless. He’s clearly a good person.

The ending of the novel, however, is a disastrous letdown. In order to explain how it fails, I’m going to have to do spoilers. If you think you might want to read it, you may want to skip the rest of this review.

Anchee has given Kropotkin a pocket watch with which, he eventually discovers, he can reverse time and visit Richmond’s past. This neat trick is demonstrated for the reader a couple of times, but the jaunts into the past are brief and not suspenseful. Only at the end does the reason for the pocket watch become clear.

Through a rather unlikely series of events, Kropotkin is arrested and locked in a high-security solitary cell. Because a television down the hall in the guard station is sometimes tuned to news channels, he gets (and we get) to overhear the bizarre and vicious stream of propaganda through which he is portrayed to the public as a terrorist. (In light of the events of the past few years, this segment of the book is eerily prophetic.)

While he is being arrested, he manages to hand off the pocket watch to one of his fellow historically displaced persons, a doctor who died in an infamous prison in Richmond in 1863. The other time-shifted man is an escaped slave from 1800 who died in an abortive slave rebellion. After a few weeks, during which Kropotkin is securely locked up, these other two men figure out how to use the pocket watch to suddenly flood Richmond with thousands of refugees from the past, both slaves fresh off the ship from Africa and sick, starving Union prisoners from the Civil War prison.

This, it appears, was Anchee’s goal all along — to start a revolutionary change in the United States by exposing our horrifying racist past in a very concrete way. The book was written some years before the current controversy over Confederate statues, but a statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond figures prominently in the story, and there can be no doubt at all that Danvers has contempt for the statue and all that it stands for, past and present.

After a few weeks in solitary, Kropotkin is miraculously released from his cell. The release is effected by a band of possibly immortal time-traveling cats. We can only guess that Danvers is a cat person, because there’s no possible justification for this injection of cuteness. The cats have no other relevance to the story.

But that’s not the bad part. Here’s the bad part. Kropotkin strolls out of prison, and of course Anchee is waiting for him. He bitterly accuses Anchee of having manipulated everyone like puppets, including Kropotkin’s new girlfriend Rachel. And indeed that’s exactly what Anchee has done. He has told several lies to bring Rachel and Kropotkin together and to connect Kropotkin with his idealistic young friends.

As we might imagine, a dedicated anarchist does not like having his life be controlled by an outside force. To Kropotkin’s way of thinking, Anchee is no better than the State.

Anchee reveals that he did indeed forge the letter that brought Rachel to Richmond. He then asks if Kropotkin would prefer him not to have done any such thing. Without Anchee’s meddling, Anchee explains, none of this would have happened. Rachel would be stuck in Seattle in a job she hates. The minor characters’ lives would be unhappy as well; one of them would have committed suicide by now. And the transformation of the cultural awareness of the United States would never happen, because those thousands of misery-drenched refugees from the past would never arrive in Richmond. Rather than being rescued, they would die in their own time. None of it would ever have happened.

Anchee gives Kropotkin the choice: Tear up the letter and erase all of the events of the story, or let Anchee mail the letter (several years in the past) so that events unfold as they have unfolded through behind-the-scenes manipulation.

Kropotkin tears up the letter.

This is a downer ending. It’s a soul-crushing ending, frankly. Not just because Rachel will never meet Kropotkin, and not just because the tormented slaves and starving Union prisoners won’t have a chance at a new life in the 21st century. That’s bad enough, but the boulder beneath which the novel lies mangled is the fact that Kropotkin made the wrong choice. He put his anarchist principles above the lives of those slaves and prisoners. Rather than set aside his principles in the interest of compassion, he denied them the possibility of new life.

Up to that moment, all of the fictional Kropotkin’s actions have been motivated by compassion for his fellow human beings. But suddenly, when push comes to shove, Danvers turns his hero into a blind man — a rigid and judgmental moral weakling. “This isn’t a revolution!” Kropotkin cries. “The people make a revolution, not some tinhorn god from the future.”

Anchee replies, “The people are greedy swine.” This line is completely out of character for him. It reads very much as Danvers’s attempt to salvage the ending he wanted by giving Kropotkin a more believable motivation. Kropotkin then (in interior monolog) reflects, “He’s shown his true stripes with that line. The revolution means nothing without faith in the people.”

Evidently the fictional Kropotkin feels that he has to cling to his faith, even though that faith will lead to a whole lot more human suffering. We expect that kind of thinking from Christian conservatives, but not from leftists. Kropotkin starts to smell a little like Stalin, in fact.

Possibly Danvers was searching for a way out of a narrative dilemma. The novel is set in Richmond in 1999 — effectively, in the present day — and obviously Richmond has not been inundated by thousands of slaves fresh off the ship in 1800. Danvers may have felt that he had to have Kropotkin stick to his ideals in order not to force the reader to buy an ending that was obviously counter-factual.

Or possibly Danvers intended the ending as a stirring call to social activism. On the final pages Kropotkin is back in prison. He ends his narrative by suggesting that the way to set him free is to throw open the doors of prisons everywhere and let all of the prisoners go free.

Given the appalling rate of incarceration in the United States today, and the extent to which African-American men have been victimized by our “justice” system, that’s a laudable proposal. I mean, we do need to keep a few obvious psychopaths behind bars — Kropotkin is too idealistic about the good in people, and possibly Danvers is too.

But ending the novel this way was a mistake. It reduced Kropotkin’s idealism to a hollow sham. And Kropotkin was at one time a real person. He deserves better.

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