I’ve always loved characters who break the mold of what a main character normally is. For instance: Christopher, the central character in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, is written beautifully. The rules and limits of his world as someone with severe Asperger Syndrome are very apparent, but the book isn’t about that – it’s a tense, frightening and absolutely brilliant mystery.
Mary Sues don’t exist in the real world. We’re all flawed individuals and most of us are a lot stranger than the people around us, even those who love us, actually realise. I want to read characters who show this, who are different and completely individual in their flaws and dreams. I would think that sometimes this takes a certain amount of bravery on the part of authors, who have to risk controversy and loss of readership (“I don’t want to read about a main character who is a sociopath.” “I don’t want my children reading a book where the main character is gay, or a drug addict.”). I was luckyt enough to come across two books recently with very different, and extremely well-written, main characters.
Chasing the Star Garden by Melanie Karsak was one of the books that I bought recently, intrigued by its steampunk setting. It was a great story, a rowdy adeventure that mixes airship racing, steampunk inventions, archaeology and ancient gods, and a great race. All great fun, but it is the main character who sets this story apart. Lily is a broken girl in a lot of ways, still enmeshed in the things that were done to her as a child. She is an opium/laudanum addict with a penchant for casual sex and bad relationships due to her history of abuse.
It’s not marketed as a YA novel (probably for obvious reasons) but it reads that way – and I do mean that as a compliment. For me, YA is about trying to find out who you are in a largely confusing and sometimes terrifying world, which is why I enjoy it as a genre even at my age. Unapologetically drug-addicted heroines are obviously an issue for acceptable YA themes, however, and even though she finds her inner strength along the way it still wouldn’t be an easy choice for parents to accept.
“It all begins on one of the worst days of Lily’s life. She just lost the London leg of the 1823 Airship Grand Prix. To top it off, a harlequin fleeing from constables shoved a kaleidoscope down her pants, told her to fly to Venice, then threw himself from her airship tower. What’s a girl to do? For Lily, the answer is easy: drink absinthe and smoke opium. Lily’s lover, Lord Byron, encourages her to make the trip to Venice. Lily soon finds herself at the heart of an ancient mystery which has her running from her past and chasing true love and the stars along the way.”
All in all, a great read for steampunk lovers and people who like their characters flawed, sassy and real.
In Discretion by Reesa Herberth is another book that I read recently, this time from Netgalley.
“Thanson Nez thought his career as a Discretionary would take him to the stars, not strand him on a space station at the ass-end of the Empire. Thanks to his last client, he’s carrying a secret he can’t get rid of fast enough, but his oath to the guild means a swift, painful death if he shares it. Already desperate for help, he runs into yet more trouble: his ex, and an explosion that paralyzes the station moments after their uncomfortable reunion.
Kazra Ferdow, Station 43’s communications officer, is almost as blindsided by the return of his first love as he is by the sudden loss of power and life support. The station is a floating graveyard in the making, and something is turning its inhabitants into savage killers. Fighting human monsters and damaged tech, Kazra and Thanson must put aside their past long enough to try to save everyone.
The more light they shine into dark corners, the more Thanson realizes how many people might die for the secrets locked in his head—and what he’s willing to sacrifice to make sure Kazra isn’t one of them.”
Thanson Nez is a Discretionary, which I kept thinking of something very much like a Firefly-esque companion. Basically, he is both a very expensive prostitute and also a spy (or a blackmailer). His latest assignation lands him in a life-threatening situation after an explosion has torn apart the station where he was and life-support is running out fast. He is accompanied by the lover of his youth from his home planet, Kazra Ferdow, who is currently in charge of security on the rapidly-failing space station. Initially tense, the two men find they still have the deep connection that they shared as teens, and they are still living out the consequences of their shared past.
I probably wouldn’t give this a full five stars (if I was into rating books), but it is still a very solid, enjoyable read. I loved Thanson. The fact that he is a gay male prostitute doesn’t mean that he isn’t also a tough, resourceful, strong main character perfectly at home kicking ass in a suspenseful science fiction book. Despite the whole “sleeping with people to discover proof of their secrets” thing, he’s a sympathetic character, well-rounded and written with nuance. I think the growing (or healing) relationship between the two men could have used a bit more depth, but then again I’m not really a fan of romances. If I want a space opera, damn it, I want adventure, not heart-fluttering. This delivers in spades.
So, there you go. Two very different characters, both with enough quirks and flaws to make them unique. I recommend both books.
Let me tell you a story about my mother. We’ve always had a very fragile relationship due to my headstrong attitude as a teen coupled with her conversion as a born-again Christian when I was fourteen. Turbulent teenage years do not mix well with someone who thinks that you are a bad person who is on a slippery slope straight to hell. In any event, my sisters all won gold stars for being good little churchgoers and I took my black marks and ostracism and the time my mom called her pastor to come and exorcise me (true story) to my sullen little teenage heart, living for the day when I could finally leave – which I did two weeks after graduation, giving up all dreams of university. It was the first time I ever saw my Dad cry.
But I’m not bitter. :)
Anyway, back to my review, which should be about the book and not about me. A year or so before my mother died of ALS I came home to visit, and she had a movie that she wanted both of us to watch. That movie was Under the Tuscan Sun, loosely adapted from the memoir by Frances Mayes. If you haven’t seen it, it is the story of a middle-aged woman who makes an unexpected purchase of a Tuscan villa during a holiday in Italy, and her misadventures in adapting to her new life. It’s uplifting and very romanticised, as one would expect, and I was quite touched that my mother (the woman who actually thought I’d been possessed by demons) thought that it related to my life in England.
Under the Tuscan Sun was about a rich writer affluent enough to decide on a mad whim to move to Tuscany. I, on the other hand, moved to England with the husband whom I’d met and fallen in love with in the States. We managed to buy a terraced house in the North (or Midlands) area of the UK. We scrimp and save and turn off lights. We did all of our house improvements (such as they are) ourselves. It is cold, drafty and an elderly lady was beaten to death in her home by children just up the street from us. It isn’t Shameless, but it sure as hell isn’t Tuscany.
I was very touched that she thought it was though, and watching that movie together made me feel much closer to her.
At Least You’re In Tuscany is a very different book. It is the story of following your dreams, taking a chance, and what happens when you are not a rich writer with tons of cash, friends and resources. It is about the difference between your dreams and the actual reality of moving halfway across the world without a safety net. In the end the author is successful, and we cheer her on through the entire book. She isn’t immediately welcomed into the hearts and homes of the quaint and quirky stereotypes that populate the other book; she does make some friends, but it takes a long time and she realises that she’ll never be totally accepted as one of them. The section about her very lonely, hungry Christmas spent with her elderly dog is very touching, and if you’ve ever tried to retain a shred of hope when sitting down there at cold rock bottom you’ll be able to relate.
And always, her motto for herself when things get darkest and misfortune strikes, is “At least you’re in Tuscany.” No matter how bad things are, how poor she is, and how infuriating Italian bureaucratic red tape turns out to be…at least she is finally there.
Running through the novel is an intense love of an adopted country, a passionate desire to belong to a place very foreign to you – which is something that I can somewhat relate to. Granted, moving to England is much less of a shock than moving to Italy, but I’ve still felt the wonder of actually being here and also the pain of missing everything and everyone back home.