Having finished my term paper (…the first one, that is), I recovered by spending all weekend reading. Beginning with an ARC [advanced reader copy: not-quite-final promotional copy] of WATERSMEET by Ellen Jensen Abbott.
I was quite absorbed by this fantasy, whose protagonist is an outcast in a harsh human world at war with other creatures and its own internal ‘demons.’ I definitely felt this book was a good use of my Saturday, although my enjoyment of it wasn’t quite evenly paced: I loved the first half, then it kind of dragged for a while, then near the very end I got interested again. Whatever, I had a good time reading it.
And yet. A couple things about it kind of bugged me. Like, the whole point of the book is that the different creatures have to overcome their antipathy toward one another, people from all species have done terrible things in their mutual wars but they’ll be stronger and happier if they unite, etc. But then there’s these other creatures to which this doesn’t apply.
Okay, so some of those other creatures are notably less sentient; I’ll buy that as a relevant difference. But some of them totally aren’t. And I find it kind of odd to be reading this whole story about species who assume each other have no humanity having to learn to question that assumption, and yet the book never questions it about these other guys. It’s not like I wouldn’t accept even some pretty tenuous principle here; it’s just that I didn’t see any principle at all.I had this problem with the latter seasons of BUFFY and ANGEL, actually. My favorite “how season 7 could have not sucked” suggestion from someone on one of the Television Without Pity boards was that the show should have embraced the corner it had backed itself into by letting some soulless demons have apparent personhood, and let the “slayer death wish” come because slayers grow ambivalent about their role as they realize some of what they’re killing could be redeemed. …And now I am mindful that Emily’s principle that “MY SO-CALLED LIFE is inherently on-topic” does not apply to BUFFY. Anyway.
My biggest problem with WATERSMEET is that I respected the main character less and less as it went on. And the main reason for this is that she made various mistakes, terrible decisions, selfish actions, etc, all of which were potentially forgivable… except not one of them had any real consequences for her. That, to me, was unforgivable.
I actually kind of fall in love with characters who make huge mistakes, as long as they also pay huge prices for them. Here, our protagonist pretty much endangers an entire community — one could even say the world — through her desire to avoid an unpleasant discussion, and when this comes to light? No one is angry; worse, the monster who wants them all dead hasn’t gained any appreciable advantage from the added time when his enemies were unawares. This violates a Fundamental Principle of Cause and Effect in Fiction, I’m pretty sure.
It’s not that our hero doesn’t suffer; actually, she suffers a huge amount in this book. But all of it is because of things beyond her control — which is compelling, up to a point, but not when I kept feeling like she should be suffering more for what she was actually doing. Unfortunately, the ending in particular did not fill me with hope for the sequel that is obviously planned. Just remember, Abbott: Personal Responsibility — bad principle for U.S. politics; great principle for fictional protagonists.