Let’s Read! Gormenghast: Titus Groan, Chapters 17-21

[Once again, I find myself having to revise my planned reading because I came to the end of a chapter that felt like such a natural finishing point for the section that I didn’t want to move on without writing about it. This section, instead of covering Chapters 17 through 23 as I originally intended to, will only cover material through Chapter 21.]

“It seemed to him that all his life he’d been climbing.”

I think I mentioned it already, but I’m giving up on this book ever developing any particular plot. After finally having some forward progress, at least temporally, Chapter 17, “Means of Escape,” resets the clock again, taking us fourteen days back to find out how Steerpike escaped from the room in which Mr. Flay had imprisoned him. Steerpike and his whereabouts are, along with Flay’s rivalry with Swelter, Mr. Flay’s primary anxieties, though both of these can be summed up together as an overall anxiety regarding anything Flay considers to be a rebellion against the established order of things in Gormenghast. Flay fears Swelter’s desire for personal revenge, but he seems to worry more over the missing Steerpike, who is, to Flay’s mind, a force of chaos, a dangerous entropy that must be found and controlled before something bad happens. At the same time, Flay’s fears about Steerpike are so amorphous as to be absurd; Flay isn’t an imaginative man, and he struggles to articulate (or perhaps Mervyn Peake struggled to articulate from Flay’s point of view) exactly what he finds so unsettling about the stray kitchen boy.

Most of this section, however, is about Steerpike himself, starting with some deft characterization immediately after Flay has left the prison room: “Most people would have tried the handle of the door. The instinct, however irrational, would have been too strong—the first impulse of one who wishes to escape. Steerpike looked at the knob of the door for a moment. He had heard the key turn. He did not disobey the simple logic of his mind. He turned from the only door in the room and, leaning out of the window, glanced at the drop below.” It’s the most complete idea of Steerpike so far, and it’s a smart illustration of the type of boy he is: logical, creative and quick-thinking, but also circumspect enough to be thinking about the costs of failure. What follows, over the next several chapters, is a symbolic, obviously foreshadowing journey in turns dreamlike and nightmarish as Steerpike ascends the rooftops of Gormenghast and must find a way back into the castle.

Chapter 18, “A Field of Flagstones,” begins with Steerpike consciously choosing to not think about the risks that gave him pause as he first looked out the window and contemplated the drop, and we quickly find that he’s a character skilled at purposeful, next steps thinking. We’re also reminded of Steerpike’s youth; Peake writes about Steerpike’s “young smile” in a way that can’t help but feel pointed in contrast to how Peake has described everything and everyone else we’ve met so far in terms to exaggerate great age, especially the way that characters, in particular, are described as having aged prematurely. It’s possible that Steerpike is still just young enough to have not been subject to the early aging that affects, but it seems more likely that this is an intentional choice to highlight Steerpike’s outsider status within the world of Gormenghast, which is a running theme in these chapters.

Once atop the roof of the castle, Steerpike finds that everything is bigger than he expected, and things quickly take a frightening turn for him as it gets dark and he must find his way around through intuition and touch. The skies clear shortly before dawn, offering some greater visibility, which lets him pick a window to start working towards. It’s a somewhat arbitrary goal, but as we’re reminded in Chapter 21, “he had been searching for one thing and one thing only—a means of entering the castle.” This singlemindedness in pursuit of a modest goal works for Steerpike in these chapters, but we’re reminded over and over again about the precariousness of his position, the danger posed by the risks he takes, and of his own ignorance—he’s only a kitchen boy, after all, and Gormenghast is extremely large and very mysterious. Chapter 20, “Near and Far,” may liken Steerpike to a predator (picking up the bird motif again) and meditate on the question of whether a predator thinks in terms of a big picture or only focuses on its prey, but Steerpike is just orienting himself so far as he wanders around taking in the sights and sounds of Gormenghast over a full day, which must teach him something about the place.

Taken together, Chapters 17 through 21 encapsulate an ambitious trajectory writ small as Steerpike scrambles across the rooftops, and they end with him finally penetrating the castle, almost by accident, when he falls into Fuchsia’s secret attic. It remains to be seen if the map of Steerpike’s non-metaphorical trajectory will match this one.

Miscellany:

  • I think the unnamed poet in Chapter 20 is Sepulchrave. Certainly, the melancholy poem he recites sounds like him.
  • Cora and Clarice creeping around is oddness of exactly the sort that I’ve now come to expect from this book. It’s also interesting to note that they’re wearing their purple dresses already, even though the events in these chapters are nearly two weeks before the christening. That said, this is the sort of thing that could mean nothing except that Peake intended for the reader to understand the two distantly seen ladies as the twins, without intending any other, deeper importance.
  • There’s a pool with a white horse and foal swimming in it, and I’m not sure if these are literally white horses—as no one in Gormenghast has been described as a rider, and all the characters so far are various types of shut-ins—or if they only look like horses from Steerpike’s high vantage point. If it is a white horse, is it a symbol (white horses figure largely in various mythologies and horses are common symbols) or is it just a horse?
  • I’m now over 150 pages into Titus Groan, and it’s still difficult-to-impossible to identify which characters are protagonists and which are antagonists. Peake seems to be taking the humanist route of examining his characters as people rather than roles, and the shifting perspectives prevent any character from emerging as definitively pro- or antagonistic. Some of this is because there’s still not much of an actual plot going on, but some of this feeling is because of the deliberately humanist care with which Peake writes about his characters. They may be absurd, bizarrely so at times, but they’re never less than fully formed.
  • Peake uses specific numerical descriptions often in this section, and I’ll definitely be watching to see if this precision of language and thought is characteristic of just Steerpike’s point of view of if it’s more broadly characteristic of the author. I seem to remember it being a thing in earlier chapters as well, but nowhere near as prominently notable as it was in these chapters.
  • I have read a little bit about Gormenghast and the idea of place as a character, and these chapters do as much to bring Gormenghast to life as any of the ones before. Mr. Flay may act in an antagonistic way towards Steerpike, but it’s Gormenghast that presents the real challenge to the ambitious outsider. There are a couple of instances of straight up anthropomorphic language being used to describe the castle—most memorably the description of Gormenghast’s towers and buildings as “a stationary gathering of stone personalities”—and I’m looking forward to paying close attention to this sort of thing going forward.

iZombie: In “Conspiracy Weary” about half the season’s chickens come home to roost

After expanding the story and cast by quite a bit in the last few weeks, “Conspiracy Weary” sees that trend reversing in preparation for the season’s two-part finale. Not all of it works, at least not entirely and not all in this episode, but it seems almost certain that some of the show’s more questionable storytelling decisions—like everything to do with Shawna—are going to turn out to be important in the next couple of weeks. Personally, I’m still not entirely sold on the necessity of these story threads, but we’ll see, starting next week, if the payoff is going to be worth the sometimes tiresome buildup.

**Spoilers ahead.**

We start at the shooting range, where shit gets very real very fast once Liv and Blaine show up. Ravi is hurt (only a little, fortunately) and Rachel flees into the night about the time that a group of Fillmore Graves soldiers shows up. Liv and Blaine take down one Bo Johns while two of the other zombie truthers are shot by the Fillmore Graves crew when they try to engage in a shootout instead of surrendering. Meanwhile, Harley Johns manages to give everyone the slip. It’s a taut, exciting action sequence, overall, and a great way to open the episode, fully delivering on the promise of last week’s cliffhanger. The zombie truther body count is even slightly surprising, since the show tends to avoid having its protagonists straight up murder people, even when they are kind of asking for it. The highlight of these early scenes, however, isn’t the action. Instead, it’s Blaine, Liv and Don. E. companionably sharing the brain of Bo Johns.

Once again, the show eschews the case of the week format in favor of advancing its bigger storylines, and Liv on conspiracy theorist brain is smartly done, with some of the funniest brain-eating-antics-related moments of the season. Liv and Peyton working to unravel the actual conspiracy surrounding Weckler’s murder and the connection to zombies is a great opportunity for their friendship to get some much-appreciated screen time, and some real strides are made in that investigation as Peyton gets the memory card Weckler was killed over and deduces that Weckler’s daughter, Tatum, is a zombie. Unfortunately, none of this is discovered before Baracus wins the mayoral election.

Liv also works with Blaine and Don E. to try and figure out where the Johns brothers’ secret property is. The guns recovered from Harley’s truck at the start of the episode turn out to be the same weapons that were used to kill Wally and Anna, which has Clive very invested in finding Harley Johns. When they finally track Harley down, however, Liv has a last-minute vision (right as Clive shoots Harey) that proves that Harley didn’t kill Wally and Anna. Fortunately/unfortunately, Harley isn’t dead; he’s a zombie, a revelation that will likely be dealt with early in next week’s episode. It seems obvious, especially in hindsight, that the Johns brothers weren’t going to turn out to be Wally’s killers, and by the end of “Conspiracy Weary” it seems likely that their deaths are tied in some unknown (and not obvious) fashion to the broader zombies vs. humans plot, the Weckler case, Baracus, and Fillmore Graves.

Bafflingly, we get some more of the Major and Shawna thing that started last week. She seems nice, and she encourages Major to start going out again, even convincing him to go dancing with her, but a short bit of sleuthing on Liv’s part (possibly influenced by the paranoia caused by Liv eating conspiracy theorist brains, but possibly just jealousy, though Liv denies this) turns up that Shawna has been sharing photos and videos of herself with Major since the beginning of their relationship. Here’s the thing, though. Why is Major so shocked and upset by this? He knew that she was taking pictures. He posed for them. He knew that she was active on social media, and he was aware of her Tumblr. It’s normal for people to post photos of themselves on social media, and none of what Shawna shared was particularly embarrassing. Sure, she should have been clearer in explicitly asking Major’s permission to share his image, especially considering his history as the Chaos Killer, and it makes sense that he would be upset about that, but at the same time, what did he think she was doing with all these pictures?

The show frames Shawna’s social media use as weird and suggests that she’s somehow trying to exploit Major, even though it’s not clear what she could gain here other than some notoriety (and then only if she was publicizing Major’s history). Really, though, the stuff Shawna posted is pretty run-of-the-mill honeymoon phase relationship pictures, and while she wasn’t explicit with Major about what she was doing, she also wasn’t hiding it; Liv was able to literally just google Shawna to find her totally public Tumblr. The episode takes pains to portray Shawna as “crazy,” but nothing she does actually is crazy. Even when Major unceremoniously dumps her—she very reasonably apologized and offered to take down the photos immediately when he confronted her about it—Shawna is upset but not unhinged in anyway. We’re meant to think that the shirts being sold at the end of the episode with Major’s photos on them are Shawna’s doing, but it, frankly, seems out of character for her, and it seems at least somewhat likely that this is a coincidence and that Shawna is going to turn out to have some other importance to the story. We must hope so, anyway. Otherwise, this whole Shawna subplot—introducing her just for the sex fort gag and to give Major a “crazy ex-girlfriend”—feels like a huge waste of time.

Finally, it’s not just Major who’s having girl trouble this week. Ravi’s friend and seemingly potential new love interest, Rachel, turns out to be a journalist, and she manages to get Ravi to tell her everything about zombies, which she promptly turns into a fear-mongering frontpage piece in a local newspaper. The episode ends with this, which, after the revelations of Baracus’s election win and Harley Johns being a zombie, leaves things very well set up for an exciting two-parter starting next week.

Miscellany:

  • It’s not just me, right? Chase Graves is obviously super into Liv.
  • Peyton and Clive both have the best reaction to Liv’s brain-influenced behaviors, but nothing beats the faces Clive makes when he’s just silently judging.
  • I could listen to Liv, Don E. and Blaine talk about conspiracy theories forever.
  • It seems very unethical for Peyton to pressure a child to comply with her off-the-books investigation like that. Isn’t this girl just fifteen or so?
  • How did Liv know to text Major about Harley? I mean, thank goodness she did, because I was about 95% certain poor Justin was about to die tragically like all the rest of Liv’s boyfriends, but this scenario was extremely contrived.
  • How is it possible that there aren’t officially licensed “Killer Abs” shirts already available to buy?

State of the Blog and Weekend Links: June 11, 2017

Sometimes I feel like I’m never going to catch a break. After being moderately productive last week, I was all prepared to churn out some work this week, especially since I started a new blogging project (Let’s Read! Gormenghast) that I’ve been excited to dig into for months.

Reader, I’m already a post behind where I’d planned to be. And the thing is, it’s not even depression or poor time management, which would be disappointing, but also classic me. Nope. This time it’s just plain old seasonal allergies, which got randomly worse for me last weekend and have only let up in the last 36 or so hours. I’ve always had a little bit of sniffling, like in April when every flower in my town blooms at once and I have the windows open for fresh air, but usually it clears up by now. Not this year, though. This year, I just got a full week of sinus pain, stuffiness, runny eyes and constant headaches that were literally only helped by laying completely horizontal and essentially doing nothing. Which amounted to quite a lot of sleeping, as the headaches made it hard to even read a book, much less anything else even remotely productive.

Today is the first day in over a week that I’ve felt anything close to normal, and most of my waking hours have been spent at my nephew’s birthday party, which was nice, but the noise has undone most of the good that a couple days of pretty solid resting and quiet/early (for me) evenings have done. The good news is that I think the allergy situation is clearing up now that it’s hitting 90 degrees and I turned on the A/C. I have high hopes that this coming week will be a bit more normal.

All that said, this past week wasn’t the total worst, all things considered. I reviewed iZombie as normal, and I did get out two of the three posts I’d planned to do about Titus GroanPart 1 | Part 2–with another one likely to be ready tomorrow. If my energy level stays high and the rest of my body cooperates, I’m hoping to catch up this week by just making up this week’s missed post by Friday. Here’s what I’ve got planned next if you’re following along:

  • Monday: Titus Groan, Chapters 10-13
  • TBD: Titus Groan, Chapters 14-17
  • TBD: Titus Groan, Chapters 18-23
  • TBD: Titus Groan, Chapters 24-26

Energy level and health again permitting, I’ve got several book reviews in the works, and I’d love to get out sometime soon to catch Guardians of the Galaxy 2 and Wonder Woman, which I expect to have thoughts on–unless I decide to just hold off on movie-going until The Little Hours and/or Atomic Blonde comes out. Because, really, raunchy nuns and Charlize Theron killing dudes and romancing Sofia Boutella will almost certainly be better than anything Marvel or DC is going to put out this year.

In sad news this week, original Batman star Adam West passed away at age 88.

If you’re planning your summer reading already and can’t wait around for my Summer Reading List near the end of June, the Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog has a book for you each week in both science fiction and fantasy.

If you’re reading for the Hugo Awards, you should definitely be following along with Joe Sherry at Nerds of a Feather. He just did short stories.

Finalist lists were announced this week for this year’s Mythopoeic Award and John W. Campbell Memorial Award.

The Wertzone’s Cities of Fantasy series continues with Waterdeep.

In her continuing fairy tale series at Tor.com, Mari Ness talks Hansel and Gretel.

As I gear up and prepare my liver for season seven of Game of Thrones, that show’s numerous failings have been much on my mind. Fortuitously, the good folks over at the Fandomentals have organized most of the reasons why Game of Thrones is bad in a handy 101 post.

Pornokitsch offers up a taxonomy of villains.

One of the books I’m hoping to finish a review of this week is Catherynne M. Valente’s The Refrigerator Monologues, which is every bit as superbly excellent as you might expect anything by Valente to be. She was interviewed over at Vox this week; you can read her Big Idea post about the new book; and if you still aren’t convinced, you can read an excerpt at Paste.

Yoon Ha Lee’s Raven Stratagem, out Tuesday (6/13), is the next major release I’m hotly anticipating, and he’s been making the rounds to promote it this week.

The other release I’m looking forward to this week is Mary Turzillo’s YA novella, Mars Girls, from Apex Publications, which I’ve had on pre-order for what feels like forever. There’s been a big blog tour going on this week ahead of publication (and stretching into next week), and all it’s done is whet my appetite for this book. I mean, look at that stunning cover and that book description. Can not wait.

While we’re still waiting on the next Book Smugglers novella, they did just reveal the cover and synopsis for the first book in their 2017 short story season, Beauty, Glory, Thrift by Alison Tam. Reader, I instantly pre-ordered it. All the cool kids are doing it.

Finally, Book Smugglers is also where I found out about the Kickstarter for the Tansy Rayner Roberts-edited anthology, Mother of Invention. I’m starting to be slightly concerned about how much the Book Smugglers are influencing my spending decisions, but AUS $10 will net you a digital edition of the book when it comes out. It had me at “diverse, challenging stories about gender as it relates to the creation of artificial intelligence and robotics.”

Also, I know I negged superhero movies a bit earlier, but the first teaser for Black Panther looks promising:

Let’s Read! Gormenghast: Titus Groan, Chapters 4-9

These next few chapters of Titus Groan vary in length, further adding to the sense of unease and strangeness that permeates the book, while at the same time slowly metering out more information about Gormenghast and the Groan family. There’s even the glimmering of the beginning of a proper plot, though, like the first three chapters, these contain only a couple of actual events that don’t represent any particular forward motion in the story.

Chapter 4, “The Stone Lanes,” begins with Mr. Flay becoming overwhelmed with disgust at Swelter and the kitchen. He leaves through a door that Steerpike has never used before, and Steerpike follows him into the Stone Lanes, a mazelike set of tunnels within the castle. When Flay discovers Steerpike following him, he takes the boy to see the “cat room,” which is just what it sounds like, and to spy on the Earl and Doctor Prunesquallor as they talk about the baby, who is apparently very ugly, with unusual violet-colored eyes. When Flay tries to send Steerpike back to the kitchen, Steerpike refuses, threatening to spread the gossip about the new baby throughout the rest of the staff, which prompts Flay to lock him up to be dealt with later.

Meanwhile, the Lady Gertrude, 76th Countess of Groan, is chafing at her enforced bedrest after childbirth. She proves herself an indifferent mother at best when her new son is brought to her and she simply names him—Titus—and sends him away, to be brought back to her when he’s six years old. Finally, we get something of a glimpse into the life of Lord Sepulchrave as he meets with the “Lord of the Library,” Sourdust, and plans his day using a set of enormous books that detail routines stretching back generations. Nearly seventy pages into the book, I would expect for more stuff to actually be happening, but there’s still so much that’s delightful about the Mervyn Peake’s lush and atmospheric prose and sharp, often funny worldbuilding that I’m not even a tiny bit bored yet.

The central motifs continue to develop, with strong references to birds and disease, though descriptions of humidity have petered out in favor of just a general pall of ill health. In these chapters, we finally get some appreciable dialogue from characters who aren’t (as Swelter was) drunk, and it gets weird. Time and again, characters talk right past each other in conversations that never quite connect, where the results of a discussion don’t quite logically follow from its content. Words and phrases are repeated for emphasis or as mantras, not quite on the level of catchphrases for each character yet, but the reader is almost certainly intended to associate certain lines and manners of address with particular characters.

  • Mr. Flay’s conversation with Steerpike, such as it is, reveals something of Steerpike’s ambition—to be out of the kitchen and away from Swelter—and much about Flay’s obsession with Gormenghast and its history and the preservation of whatever twisted sort of order exists in this place. Flay repeats the question and accusation, “Rebellion,” several times, suggesting that he maintains a level of paranoia about it without having a firm idea of what rebellion might look like.
  • Doctor Prunesquallor is a fool and a drunk, prone to sycophantic fawning on the Earl and his family.
  • Fuchsia’s theatricality and self-absorption is felt in every line of her brief speech.
  • Lady Gertrude’s irascible temper and wry good humor is swiftly established in the way she talks with her birds. Her treatment of Nanny Slag is less unkind than impatient, and again it’s characterization that is managed economically.
  • Lord Sepulchrave may be the sanest of the characters we’ve met so far by this point in the novel, though even he is plagued by a pervasive melancholia, burdened by the weight of history and tradition as we find out he is in his short conversation with Sourdust.

Finally, it’s encouraging that there are already multiple female characters introduced, although it’s less encouraging (albeit interesting) the ways in which these women conform to and sometimes defy stereotypes.

It’s Fuchsia who we meet properly first, and she’s little more than a child, petty and spiteful and jealous in the way of some young teenagers, angry at the prospect of having a brother and casually cruel about him when she first sees him. Fuchsia is said to be almost beautiful, though, and Peake goes on to describe her in somewhat creepily sexual terms (“Her sullen mouth was full and rich; her eyes smoldered.”) before then switching tacks and calling her manner “utterly unfeminine—no man could have invented it,” in a direct contradiction to the earlier, sexually-charged description. At the same time, Fuchsia wears a red dress—a color long associated with passion and sexuality—and has long dark hair “like a pirate’s flag,” a descriptor which casts Fuchsia, though only fifteen, as both sexually aggressive and somewhat disreputable. It’s a weird mix of traits for the character, and while Fuchsia may yet grow into such a fearsome description of her person and mannerisms, I can’t help being mildly to moderately squicked out when I remember that she’s only fifteen.

Fuchsia’s mother, Lady Gertrude, may be my favorite character in the book so far. It seems to me that Peake intends for us to understand Gertrude as being at least slightly mad, with her indifference to motherhood just one facet of her madness, but one can also read her as simply repressed, trapped in her role as the 76th Countess of Groan and resentful of it. Peake’s physical descriptions of Gertrude are fascinating. She’s a large woman, and some other writers may have portrayed her as grossly fat, but even in a book where words that connote illness and disease are common, Peake avoids this. Instead, Gertrude is shown as large and rather impressively imposing: “The effect she produced was one of bulk, though only her head, neck, shoulders, and arms could be seen above the bedclothes.” Covered with birds, Gertrude feels almost part of the very architecture of Gormenghast; it’s not clear where she came from before marrying Sepulchrave, but it seems obvious that’s she’s quite gone to root in this place.

She’s got a wry, sardonic wit and a sense of generalized impatience with those around her. She’s bored and irritated by Nanny Slagg—a fairly stock old, doting nursemaid sort of character—and dismissive of Doctor Prunesquallor. Still, like basically all the other characters in the book so far, Gertrude still doesn’t have a story aside from having just given birth, recovered quickly, and refused to raise her own child. There’s no obvious story blueprint for where any of this goes next, to be honest, so it will be neat to see what the next 450 pages of this book are all about.

iZombie: “Return of the Dead Guy” wastes time dredging up the past

There’s a lot going on every week on iZombie, but “Return of the Dead Guy” is extraordinarily busy, even by iZombie standards. The show is juggling multiple different plots, even adding new ones, and while this is something iZombie has always done with mixed success, this week’s mix is more bad than good. Still, the good parts are very good. It’s just a shame that they’re tied to garbage material like “Fort Lust” that does nothing but drag down the episode.

**Spoilers below.**

The highest stakes plot this week is, fortunately, one of the ones that works best in this episode. After Harley and his zombie truthers showed up at the morgue last week, they’ve commandeered Ravi and repaired to the gun shop, where they have Don E. imprisoned and a live video feed set up to document his declining health as they starve him of brains. With his phone confiscated and surrounded by dudes with guns, Ravi is still determined to prevent the torture planned for Don E. Eventually, Ravi manages to get Don E.’s phone and call Blaine, but by the end of the episode Ravi and Don E. are still waiting on their rescue and shit just got real. With the view counter for the livestream over 100k, Harley and his friends are ready to go to town on Don E., and the episode ends with Ravi physically blocking their way and Harley putting a literal gun to Ravi’s head. Of course, the viewer knows that Blaine is outside, with Liv, and gearing up to save the day (finally), and this does diminish the overall effect of the attempted cliffhanger, but it still works well. It’s especially nice to see Ravi getting a storyline that takes his character growth in a positive direction and gives him a chance to do something heroic.

The other storyline that works in this episode is Blaine’s, if only because villainous Blaine is vastly more fun—even absent David Anders’ singing—than nice Blaine ever was. This week, we get a showdown of sorts between Blaine and Mr. Boss, rather sooner than expected, when Boss shows up at the funeral home and shoots Blaine as soon as he opens the door. Obviously, this doesn’t go well for Boss. Blaine trusses him up, lays him out in a casket and then gives him a crash course on the existence of zombies. There’s a lot to love about Boss’s reaction to this news, which is neither the easy(-ish) acceptance of Ravi and Clive nor the fear and hatred of the truthers. Instead, Boss is skeptical, or perhaps “violently disbelieving,” and he continues trying to kill Blaine until it becomes extremely obvious that it’s not going to work. What’s less obvious is why Blaine wants Boss as a business partner after all this. It seems like the sort of thing that is obviously going to backfire at some point, probably sooner rather than later.

Interestingly, there is no regular case of the week this week. Instead, Liv finally eats the brain of the dominatrix murderer, Weckler, who Peyton thinks may have been innocent. It turns out that he wasn’t, but it also turns out that he was, himself, murdered. This is found out in scenes that involve some interesting (in a “gift to the femslash community” way) roleplay between Liv and Peyton. Liv and Clive investigate, trying to figure out who might have had Weckler murdered, but they hit a wall when Weckler’s daughter refuses to cooperate with their investigation. Also, Weckler’s daughter is a zombie, staying with a zombie family, and they’re involved somehow with Fillmore Graves since they eat tube brains. Unfortunately, this plot twist is more confusing than anything else. This episode did an okay job of establishing some of what happened with Weckler, it feels as if we’re as far away as ever from learning why, and a whole new plot just got thrown into the mix as well.

The other side effect of Weckler’s brain is that Liv experiences aspects of Weckler’s mental illness, particularly his visions of his dead wife, except Liv sees her dead boyfriend, Drake, because she apparently still has some issues to work through regarding his death by her hand. Here’s the thing, though. Liv straight up says to ghost delusion Drake that the reason she’s been throwing herself into all these different brains has been to avoid having to live in her own head and thus having to deal with actually processing the grief and trauma and guilt she feels about Drake’s death. However, she’s just spent several days on tube brains, specifically so she could be herself, unaffected by other personalities, in order to pursue her relationship with Justin, who she spends most of this week—even after being visited by ghost delusion Drake—trying to bone. And when it really comes down to it, she’s able to talk herself out of her Drake-induced doldrums relatively quickly (and successfully bone Justin). The time to address this stuff was about eight episodes ago; at this point in the season it just feels superfluous and, frankly, baffling.

Finally, for some unfathomable reason, this episode contains not just one but several check-ins with Major and his new friend Shauna, who have built themselves a blanket fort for sex. I mean. Okay. Fine. Liv is slightly jealous and weirded out by it, but not enough to stop her from going right out and sleeping with Justin. Shauna seems nice, but not in any truly sinister way, which is almost sinister just in and of itself. But the truth is there’s no particular reason for any of this stuff to have made the cut in an already busy episode. It’s late in the season to be introducing a new character that we’re supposed to care about, and Shauna isn’t particularly likeable or at all interesting. Sure, Major doesn’t have much to do now that he’s not a zombie any longer, but that’s okay. It would be better to have no Major at all than to have Major engaging in overly saccharine sexy times with a virtual stranger when there’s far more interesting stuff going on elsewhere.

Miscellany:

  • Mr. Boss sneaking in and out of his own house while his wife is on the phone with her lawyer or the life insurance company or whatever was a smart, funny intro to the episode.
  • Even as Blaine is expanding his business, there’s some grumbling in his crew about how things are going.
  • Curious to find out who Rachel is. My money is on FBI, but we’ll see.

Let’s Read! Gormenghast: Titus Groan, Chapters 1-3

“Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its Outer Walls.”

Having once read it, there’s no way one could mistake the opening sentence of Titus Groan for that of any other book. For one thing, it begins with the name, “Gormenghast,” simply and instantaneously establishing a setting and setting a tone before continuing in a tumble of words that feel as meticulously chosen as they are off-kilter. “Off-kilter,” of course, may be the best one-word description of these first three chapters. From sentence and paragraph structure to word choice, everything about these chapters feels at least slightly askew and unbalanced from the very first words of the book.

The homes of the common people “swarm” and “sprawl.” The earth is sloping and the roofs are uneven. These buildings are “held back by the castle ramparts” as if they’re assaulting the castle—the poor imposing upon the wealthy, titled and powerful by simply existing—and they’re tenacious, “…like limpets on a rock.” The castle itself complements the ramshackle town around it with its “time-eaten buttresses” and “broken and lofty turrets.” Gormenghast is ancient and enormous, but it’s also crumbling and in disrepair. Worse, there’s something obscene about it; it’s most distinguishing feature the Tower of Flints, which “arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven.” To round out the picture, the tower is full of owls, noisy at night and quiet during the day.

And that’s all just the first paragraph.

Chapter 1, “The Hall of the Bright Carvings,” continues to establish the setting. Gormenghast is an ancient but decaying seat of power, and every description of it is reflective of its decline. The place is gloomy and dingy, collapsing under the weight of time, and there’s a profound disconnectedness between the denizens of the town and those of the castle. The annual carving contest, through which three sculptures are added to the eponymous Hall, is a tradition without meaning. The townspeople, we’re told, spend all year working on their submitted pieces, only to have the majority of them burned after the Earl of Groan judges them and chooses the winners. The chosen pieces are relegated to an enormous gallery kept up by a Curator, Rottcodd, who obsessively, but joylessly keeps them dust-free. They are otherwise seen by no one, as no one except Rottcodd seems to go to the Hall, and he lives there as well as works there. It’s not only those in the castle and those without who are disconnected from each other.

Within the castle, too, there are sharp divides between the gentry and the staff and within the staff as well. This is shown in Flay’s interactions with Rottcodd, but it’s further highlighted in the next chapters, “The Great Kitchen” and “Swelter.” While the workers in the Great Kitchen may be more in the loop of major events inside the castle than Rottcodd was, at least enough so that they know to get wildly drunk in celebration of the new Lord Groan’s birth, they’re no more emotionally connected to the Earl and his family than the Curator. Their bacchanalian revels are just as empty a tradition as the sculpture contest, and the kitchen staff may work for the Earl, but they worship the Chef, Swelter. Like the description of the Tower of Flints, the descriptions of the Great Kitchen and its Chef have a feeling of the profane about them. The Kitchen—hot, stifling, crowded, smelly, cacophonous—is a Hell, and Swelter is its ruler.

To the degree that these first three chapters have a plot (which is debatable), it is this: a new heir to the Earldom has been born, and Lord Sepulchrave’s personal servant, Mr. Flay, is spreading the news. Mr. Flay is so excited about the birth that he is in search of someone to share it with who won’t have heard of it yet, and this sends him to Rottcodd in the Hall of the Bright Carvings. When Rottcodd’s reaction is disappointing, Flay then heads to the Great Kitchen, where he knows that there will be, if not surprise at the novelty of the birth, at least some appropriate amount of celebratory reaction. It’s not much, as plots go, and 33 pages of story with only, essentially, a single event is an unfashionably (by today’s standards) slow start to any novel. However, there’s so much emotive and atmospheric worldbuilding detail and sly characterization of the first few characters we meet that it’s hard to resent the lack of actual story.

Notable Motifs:

  • Birds – There are owls in the Tower of Flints; Rottcodd uses a feather duster; there are birds (ravens, starlings, a white rook) in the Lady’s chamber; Rottcodd’s head moves back and forth “like a bird’s”; Flay has a “scarecrow frame”; Steerpike is Swelter’s “impatient lovebird.”
  • Pathology/Illness – The buildings in the first sentence “swarmed like an epidemic”; the Tower of Flints is “like a mutilated finger”; the sculpture competition is “rabid”; the afternoon that Flay visits Rottcodd is “unhealthy”; the kitchen has a “sickening atmosphere”; Swelter was at the back of Flay’s mind “like a tumor”; Swelter’s first word is to call the kitchen boys, “Gallstones!”
  • Humidity – It’s a hot, humid day when Flay goes to see Rottcodd; the Great Kitchen is oppressively humid.

Some Notes on Names:

I suspect Mervyn Peake’s naming conventions in this series will provoke either love or hate reactions in readers. I am firmly in the love camp, myself, and I appreciate the wryly ironic comedic absurdity of it all.

  • Gormenghast – An ugly word that suggests both “gorge” and “ghastly” and that seems designed to cram as much information as possible about the place into its name.
  • Flay – A single syllable, but a full, real word. Whether you understand it as “to skin,” “to beat,” or “to brutally criticize,” it seems appropriate for our Mr. Flay.
  • Rottcodd – Suggests both death and the smell of something vile. I’m curious to see if Rottcodd appears later in the novel, as this seems like it could be a foreshadowingly symbolic name.
  • Sepulchrave – From “sepulcher,” obviously, so another death name, with a suffix that could lay equal claim to origins in “craven” or “raving.” Or even “raven,” I suppose, which would fit in with the bird motif.
  • Groan – The family name of the Earl. Like “Flay,” it’s a single syllable real word that seems intended to be understood for any or all of its various connotations.
  • Swelter – A name that implies heat and wetness, size—especially in contrast to the simply named Flay—and a certain grossness. Swelter’s first name is Abiatha, perhaps from the Biblical Abiathar, which means “excellent father.” This would make sense in light of Swelter’s affectionately abusive paternal-ish relationship with the kitchen boys, and it would also jive with their seemingly religious devotion to him.
  • Steerpike – Suggests agency with “steer” and sharpness (like a weapon) with “pike.”

State of the Blog and Weekend Links: June 4, 2017

Last weekend was busy enough, with my daughter’s belated birthday party (I still can’t believe she’s fourteen) and then a family get-together for the holiday, that I ended up just skipping this post. The truth is, it was also just an altogether dull week (for me, not in general–this country is an absolute shitshow), without even any especially interesting links to share.

This week hasn’t been great, overall, but there have been some bright spots. The most recent episode of iZombie was a new high point for one of my favorite shows. Lucifer ended its second season with a strong finale. Still Star-Crossed premiered and seemed promising. There was a new Marie Brennan novella, Lightning in the Blood, and it’s fantastic. I read Catherynne M. Valente’s The Refrigerator Monologues and Seanan McGuire’s Down Among the Sticks and Bones, which were both superb. I pre-ordered my copy of The Refrigerator Monologues along with Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee and The Prey of Gods by Nicky Drayden, so I’ve got something to look forward to in a couple weeks when those show up.

I didn’t write much–being slightly depressed and home with a bored teenager on summer break isn’t exactly awesome for one’s productivity–but I did introduce my big Let’s Read! Gormenghast project. It’ll start properly tomorrow with Titus Groan Chapters 1-3, with chapters 4-9 and 10-13 later in the week.

It’s the start of a new month, June, which means we’re getting into the end of my Spring Reading List. However, if you’re looking for a full(-ish) list of June releases, Tor.com is the place to go, as always:

Meanwhile, the B&N Sci-fi and Fantasy Blog has a great list of 6 Standout Short Story Collections to start your summer with.

B&N is now publishing fiction, and they started strong last week with Sarah Gailey’s “A Lady’s Maid.”

Mari Ness wrote about Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose.

The Wertzone’s Cities of Fantasy series continues with New Crobuzon.

There’s a new Malka Older story at Fireside: “Narrative Disorder.”

It sounds like the final season of Game of Thrones might not air until 2019, which is a bummer. I’m ready to be done with it, to be honest. I guess, on the bright side, it will give my liver time to recover after all the alcohol I plan on drinking when I watch the upcoming season.

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