An Excess Male – More Than Necessary Reading

51WJWWdGrzLIt’s a great time for readers and writers of dystopian fiction. Whatever world you want to imagine where something terrible is happening, it is out there for you. One can recede into the classics, finding new relevancies and warnings. Then there are the newer stories that draw inspiration from the past, with the emotional resonance of today’s anxieties. I mean, sure the world is terrible, but we can always imagine new ways it could be worse, right? I honestly did not realize that I was going to be reading about a dystopia. The very basic description had an air of a satire, sexually oppressing the men to highlight the avalanche of anti-woman dystopian stories in our culture. Maggie Shen King’s An Excess Male instead provides a narratively balanced but horrific look into a banal and homogenous society that feels like the next logical step in the nationalistic population restrictions seen today in modern China.

In An Excess Male, the one-child policy is still in place and the Chinese government has expanded upon it by allowing women more than one husband due to the disproportionate number of men in their society. Each man can have one child with his wife, and the blended families act as a single unit. The story begins with Wei-Guo, a forty-year-old fitness instructor, as he attempts to become the third husband in an already troubled family. The initial husbands to twenty-two-year-old May-Ling are brothers, a sixty-year-old businessman and a software engineer in his fifties. The story is told through the perspective of all four characters as they weigh the pros and cons of letting Wei Guo enter their lives. The family grows closer and secrets are revealed as the oppressive weight of national duty grows heavier on everyone’s shoulders.

Plot and pace-wise, the book feels closely-woven with short focused chapters that exude empathy, while also subtly filling empty space with inescapable dread. The narrative takes place over a few weeks, setting up the story as a snapshot of these character’s lives where the stakes feel incredibly universal, but ultimately very personal. King chooses to place the story in a time where the rules have already been established, enabling her to focus on how lives unravel as individuals attempt to mold themselves to meet the stringent needs of a system. Personal feelings, habits, and ways of life that we take for granted are examined through a system that ultimately finds the open expression of diversity to be inherently hostile. King also manages to highlight how the ruling regime benefits a very small subset of people, using small personal connections between the characters and others in different strata of the society. King uses numerous lenses including lifestyles, sexual orientations, and even cultural views of developmental disorders to demonstrate that regardless of gender, nobody benefits from such a societal structure.

King is not only able to control the plot with an even hand but successfully molds it to highlight the story’s antagonist. As the narrative progresses, the characters’ personal dynamics change, shifting between excitement and anxiety as they process welcoming a new person to their family. While these emotions are normal, they are exacerbated by ever-present pressure from the story’s Chinese government and society. What you or I would consider to be normal interactions are given new weight and urgency under the regime that King has created. The trifecta of husbands are willing to submit to whatever demands are made of them in order to look normal and fit in, while May-Ling is cornered by her lack of choice and will, her feelings negated in the service of society. It is a brutal expectation, reinforced systematically and repeatedly through their interactions with each other and everyone else they encounter. King shines by coating almost every moment with this creeping oppression, never fully overwhelming the reader until she needs to.

King’s writing of her characters complements this tremendously. Instead of focusing on changing her writing between the point of view switches, King chooses to centralize her protagonists differing emotions. King highlights how little anxieties pile up on each of the separate characters, immediately making them relatable. The hardest part as the reader is knowing how all the characters feel as you watch the proverbial emotional pot boil over repeatedly. I found myself hoping that the characters would open up and talk about their feelings with one another, thus sharing just how awful their experience is. When they finally have conversations about their feelings, hopes, and fears, it was a hollow catharsis. It did not matter. The characters could not solve their problems by working together because they were not each other’s problems. Rather, the society they are forced to inhabit is the problem, as it stokes the flames of existing insecurities, fears, and anxieties. While May-Ling and her husbands understand this, they also know they cannot change the system but also cannot change themselves to meet the strict standards. They are left to take it out on each other.

When I first read this story, I was sucked into these people’s lives, wondering how they were going to escape, or if there was even a chance for escape. Things that felt quirky and weird in the beginning became darker and more sinister as the book went on. There was one moment where the illusion was broken and the emotional waltz was interrupted as a pure naked force was used by the Chinese government. It seemed unnecessary to incorporate blatant state-sponsored violence to advance the plot, considering how well-paced everything else felt. After a few days of thinking on it, however, I realized it had to be there. I got so caught up in the machinations of the system, so enamored with King’s future China, and so mixed up in the emotions of these fictional characters that I had forgotten about the real, tangible violence already being inflicted. The brutal display of physical power was there to remind the audience that people’s lives were actually being ruined. Sure, it is a story- a good one, with excellent characters- but it is also a warning. Even though you might find a way to scrape by and conform in the small ways that take the eyes off you, others cannot. In such a world, those that cannot comply must be removed in order to ensure that the whole is perceived as homogenous.

An Excess Male is the right kind of dystopia. It does not overwhelm initially by introducing an interesting premise and slowly ramping up the tension. By choosing to focus on such a small time period in May-Ling and Wei-Guo’s lives, King allows the reader to expand the tension across other aspects of daily life outside the book’s focus. These small interactions add up through the book, painting an elaborate picture of emotional friction that has no true resolution. While I have become more and more a proponent of trying to envision a future that is worth fighting for through stories, books like An Excess Male can also play a role in the uncertain times we live in. Just as I was distracted by the intricacies of this menacing dystopia, I realized that I and others must avoid lulling ourselves to sleep with “it can always be worse” stories of totalitarianism. Because it can always be worse, but people are also hurting right now.

Rating: An Excess Male – 8.5/10
-Alex

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Ravencry – Cawing Back For More

36666672Last year, when I finished reading Blackwing, by Ed McDonald, I was unsure if I would be back for more. My review of the McDonald’s debut can be found here, but the short version is: good writing and interesting world, but a super boring protagonist. However, after sitting on the book for a few months I found myself still invested in the plot and curious to see what would happen next. So, I decided to pick up the second book in the Raven’s Mark series, Ravencry, and see if it stepped it up or dropped the ball.

The plot of this series is hilariously complicated, and you can find a much more in-depth run down in my review of book one (which is linked in the first paragraph). However, the short version is McDonald’s books take place in a post apocalyptic wasteland where two sets of gods wage war. Our protagonist, Ryhalt Galharrow, is a captain in the special forces (the Blackwings) of one of the supposedly less garbage gods (Crowfoot), and works as a combination detective/warden/bounty hunter. His general job is to investigate and track down anomalies that his patron is worried about. The plot of Ravencry is essentially that the events of book one have shaken the populace’s faith in the ruling class, and the common people have started to form cults and riot. While this is happening, a powerful artifact is stolen from Crowfoot’s personal vault. Ryhalt needs to find this artifact before it starts causing trouble, while dealing with the fact that the city he inhabits is in upheaval.

As I have said both in my previous review and the first paragraph, McDonald’s world is pretty fantastic to explore. A large part of the world revolves around a slice of land that separates the two warring gods: a horrific wasteland called the Misery. There is a dualism to the Misery; it is filled with untold horrors, but it is also constantly explored and mapped in order to maintain the boundary against the rival deities. This forced exploration provides a powerful natural narrative vehicle by which to show the reader all sorts of cool and terrifying things. You also find yourself buying in to the idea that the Misery is this awful place due to reactions of all the trackers who have gone in to map it. In Ravencry, the world continues its patterns of excellence. McDonald expands the scope of his world building. The first books primarily focuses on a single city and the Misery, while the second does a better job of selling these two massive countries at war.

However, while Ravencry still has the strengths of its predecessor, my real question was did it shore up my big issue with book one – the characters, specifically Ryhart. The answer to this is …somewhat. The support cast in Blackwing was decent, but I would argue that Ravencry‘s is slightly better. The supporting characters are a mix of new and old, and McDonald feels like he takes a lot more time to introduce, and flesh out, all the people you meet. I definitely felt like I understood the identities and motivations of characters in Ravencry, whereas many of the cast felt like one dimensional beings provided to enable Ryhart in the first book. Ryhart himself is definitely better, but I still think he has a little ways to go. I previously had two issues with Ryhart; he didn’t seem “special” enough to be the protagonist of book one, and I just didn’t like his personality. Ravencry does a great job fixing the first issue, but doesn’t fully fix the second. In the first book, Ryhart just seemed weirdly untalented for how much faith people placed into him. His principle skill just seemed to be that he happened to be standing in the right place at the right time, which didn’t really give him a lot of agency. In the second book, he feels much more like a knowledgeable detective who is deadly in a fight. I had a much stronger understanding why other cast members might look to him for leadership and why he felt important to the story. As to the second issue, I had a hard time explaining my problem with Ryhart’s personality in my review of book one, but I think I finally understand how to state it better with the second installment. As I mentioned before, one of the huge strengths of this series is the world building, and how the character’s reactions and identities really sell this post apocalyptic wasteland. This is almost universally true except for Ryhart himself, who feels like he doesn’t react to his surroundings as he should. Most of the character’s live life knowing that the Misery could murder them in a blink, and this is reflected in their bleak nature and lack of long term planning. On the other hand, Ryhalt feels like he has plot armor, and knows it, as choices and feelings he has don’t mess with what I would expect. This creates cognitive dissonance for me and makes it occasionally hard to believe him as a character. However, Ryhart is definitely better overall in almost every respect in Ravencry.

At the end of the day, I think Ravencry is an improvement on almost every metric compared its excellent predecessor. I harped on Ryhart a lot, but it really is a small blemish in an otherwise great read. While I was on the fence about the series after book one, Ravencry has cemented my loyalty to the Raven’s Mark series, and I eagerly await the next installment. It you are looking for a dystopian/horror fantasy that has an impressive ambiance, complicated but engrossing plot, and relatable cast – check out Blackwing and Ravencry.

Rating: Ravencry – 9.0/10
-Andrew

The Road – Worth the Trek

71ij1hc2a3lTo a reader like me, who voraciously consumes spoon-fed, tried-and-true Sci-Fi tropes without scoffing, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road teeters on the edge of greatness for a majority of the fittingly winding narrative. It withholds details that, to any other book, would be crucial. It chooses moments of solemn tranquility over epic conflict. It dives deep into the psychology of a father and son walking across a gutted landscape instead of pitting them against hordes of zombies or quasi-undead humans. As I read the novel, I’d lean into this gentle back-and-forth between greatness and insignificance. By the end, I landed gingerly on the side of quality, pushed along by gusts of heart-wrenching story beats and lyrical but grounded poetic prose. And the more I ponder it, the more I feel that The Road is a fantastic book, though it will inevitably polarize readers.

McCarthy’s “masterpiece,” as the back cover dubs it, follows a boy and his father as they traverse a burnt and barren America in the wake of a devastating apocalypse. Save for a few hints and memories, no concrete explanation of the apocalyptic event emerges. Instead, McCarthy treats readers to a harrowing tale of two people trying to survive. The boy and his father are never named. In fact, only one character in the entire book gives a name, and even then it isn’t clear whether he is telling the truth. To divulge any more plot details would lead us dangerously near spoiler territory, so I’ll leave it at this: the boy and father venture through this destroyed world in an attempt to find safety or refuge, and they must make snap decisions that could lead to a better life or a painful death.

Despite their namelessness, our two protagonists are remarkably defined. The boy is curious about the world and eager to help others thrive whenever he is given a chance. The father’s memories of the old world jade him to the new one, and he’s driven only by his desire to keep the boy alive. McCarthy varies his descriptions of their journey and their world so skillfully that the reader sees everything through the boy’s eyes and his father’s in near simultaneity.

Some descriptions of the world and depictions of the conversations between the protagonists are so fittingly drab that readers could be quick to denounce McCarthy’s writing as dull or uninspired. Instead of casting it off as such, I asked myself: In a post-apocalyptic setting, how much brilliance can be allowed to emerge? When a ravaged landscape strips bare all of its inhabitants leaving only dust and the will to survive, is there room left for actual human emotion? How can the eyes of this man and his child, so tinted by destruction, see beauty in the world at every turn?

McCarthy’s prose walks these lines and tackles these questions with remarkable poise. At times, the dialogue ignites into radiant descriptions of the world before the catastrophe or vividly dark passages about the spoiled earth. In other sections, the story finds the lowest common conversational denominator, effortlessly and tangibly indicating the need for survival above all else. “Okay.” The boy says. “Okay.” The dad says. It may be less than they need, but it’s the most they can manage.

In my research about The Road, I noticed a majority of reviewers mention McCarthy’s choice to use only the occasional punctuation. Some wax romantic about his brilliant use of poetic license. Others remark that it’s unnecessarily obtuse. In my mind, they’re not mutually exclusive. Sure, only using periods with the occasional comma and never once using quotation marks can symbolize the starving nature of the characters at hand. But there are other ways to approach that goal. Personal preference will reign supreme here, deterring some while attracting others.

The entire story of The Road culminates into a gloriously tragic and satisfying end, flavored by slight hints of ambiguity. It’s poignant and true to the many pages and words that comprise the bulk of the novel. True to the title, the ending sees our characters at an intersection with a crucial decision to make. Given the skill with which McCarthy teaches the reader about his characters, I felt equipped to guess what might happen next. And while that may not be satisfying for all, it certainly was for me.

The Road is a genuinely astonishing tale marred only by the inevitability of personal stylistic preference. If you don’t mind occasionally dense prose or doing some of the world-building on your own without hand-holding, this touching journey deserves a slot on your to-read shelf.

Rating: The Road: 9.0/10
-Cole