Bill’s Book Blog, 3/13/2021

I’m trying to read 104 books* this year. Here are some thoughts about the ones I read over the last week!

I started this week off by finishing The Summer Dragon, by Todd Lockwood (2016), which was a gift from a family friend. Lockwood is primarily famous as an illustrator for fantasy novels and games, and particularly for his dragons – if you’ve ever admired a good dragon on a Magic: The Gathering card or in a D&D sourcebook, there’s a decent chance it was a Lockwood dragon. He’s also done a whole host of covers for R.A. Salvatore’s Drizzt books.

This one features both a dragon (well, okay, a dracolich) and Drizzt!

Given that Lockwood has cornered the market on dragon-art, it’s no surprise that his debut as a fantasy author is primarily about dragons and the raising thereof. Our hero is Maia, a teenage girl whose family runs a dragon-breeding aerie which supplies mounts for the Empire’s armies. One day, she sees Getig, the Summer Dragon, a godlike being whose appearance signals a time of Change. The local religious authorities debate how to interpret this omen, with serious consequences for Maia. Also, the Evil Empire that’s always been at war with Maia’s country is attacking aeries using zombie-monsters called Horrors. Also, Maia would very much like to raise a dragon of her own, but those same religious and military authorities may not allow her to have one.

As fantasy novels go it’s more or less unremarkable. The characters are thin at best, the plot is generic, and nothing about the worldbuilding is particularly unique or memorable. He’s also not what anyone would describe as an excellent prose stylist, though with a few notable exceptions (at one point Maia shouts “Holy crap balls!” when she is startled) it’s not offensively bad. As one might expect, given that Lockwood has spent a very long time drawing dragons, the most interesting stuff in the book is when he describes the various breeding protocols, dragon-rearing techniques, and dragonriding equipment that Maia needs to be familiar with.

Also, every fifty pages or so comes with a full-size black and white illustration, and these are all very good, so that’s a treat. It’s not every day you get to see an author’s own visual depiction of their characters!

The Summer Dragon is clearly written as the first book in a series, though Lockwood hasn’t published anything else since it came out. I don’t feel particularly compelled to keep up with it, however, so if we never get another book in the series I don’t think I’ll be too upset.

The other book I read this week was Slapboxing with Jesus, by Victor LaValle (1999). I first became aware of LaValle because of The Ballad of Black Tom (2016). which I thoroughly enjoyed. I’ve followed LaValle on Twitter for a while too, and have appreciated his thoughts enough to have a go at, well, reading every book he’s ever written.

Black Tom is a retelling of one of Lovecraft’s worst and most racist short stories, The Horror at Red Hook, and it’s good stuff, managing to both be very effective as cosmic horror while also situating the story in a broader context of racism and police brutality directed towards African-American people. Many of LaValle’s other novels are also horror or at least horror-adjacent, but this first book is definitely literary fiction rather than genre work.

Slapboxing with Jesus consists of 12 interconnected short stories about the lives of young Black men (mostly about 14 years old) in New York, specifically in Queens, in the 1980s and 1990s. Several of the stories center around a kid named Anthony, who lives in an apartment with his mother and grandmother, who are originally from Uganda. LaValle himself grew up in Queens, and his mother is from Uganda, so the subject matter is presumably drawn from his real experiences.

The stories mostly didn’t do it for me, though this may be because many of them are about teenage boys being fascinated by sex. Teenagers learning about sex are not nearly as interesting as the literary world thinks they are; once you’ve read one story about a horny teenage boy who embarrasses himself and mistreats a woman while trying to get laid, you’ve read most of the other ones, too. Horny teenage boys are not particularly complicated, and I rarely feel as though I’ve learned anything new when I read a story about one. Perhaps this is because I once was a horny teenage boy, and thus don’t need a window into that experience; perhaps this is because I have aged into a prude; perhaps it is both.

He also consistently uses em-dashes instead of quotation marks, which is mostly harmless but occasionally makes it harder to tell when a speaker has stopped talking. I flipped to a random page to get an example:

“He said, —For you, A, like when you’re on board and that ship seems so huge, you can look at this and remember what the whole thing looked like. So it doesn’t seem so immense. Horse passed it to me. The thing was heavy for the size. I tossed it from hand right to hand left.”

Presumably the speaker stops after “immense,” but I still found it distracting and am not sure what we got from the experiment. There’s just nothing wrong with quotation marks, gang.

Anyway there is definitely some good stuff in these stories, as in the best one, how I lost my inheritance, where Anthony watches his Mom get into a dispute with a shady lawyer and also learns about her past life in Uganda:

“Mom liked to put herself in a historical context, to teach me something. She felt awful being absent often and hoped in some way that knowledge might take her place. She compared having me to taming the Wild West. When she and my dad divorced (I was one)? the fight for separation of church and state. And now, battling this lawyer? The fight with the U.S. Government for control of the Black Hills. (I had to do the research myself each time, come home and try to explain my mother’s logic—the last, Black Hills, went like this: the money, her invention, they were hers by all natural rights but through chicanery and loopholes it was being kept somewhere just out of reach; she could see the distant mountain ranges, but it seemed impossible again to climb that glorious terrain.)

In all the collection feels like exactly what it is, which is a first collection of short stories by a young writer, who is showing significant promise but hasn’t quite figured out his voice yet. I look forward to reading the rest of his work and seeing it develop. Next up is The Ecstatic (2002), which I understand to be a continuance of Anthony’s stories, and which apparently appealed so much to Mos Def that he named an album after it.

Current Progress: 21/104, or 20.19%.

Current average pagecount: 278.33

*I count anything originally published in a standalone volume as one book, and although there’s no specific page-length requirements for what constitutes a “book,” I want to aim for an average of 300 pages at the end of the year.

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