Book: Spellbinder - Livre d'Or








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livredor
Book: Spellbinder
Saturday, 05 April 2008 at 11:32 pm
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Author: Melanie Rawn

Details: (c) 2006 Melanie Rawn; Pub 2007 Tor; ISBN 0-7653-5436-5

Verdict: Spellbinder is a bizarre mixture of eye-bleedingly bad with quite decent.

Reasons for reading it: I love Melanie Rawn, and she's keeping everyone on tenterhooks waiting for the third of her really amazing Exiles trilogy, so I was happy to read a new standalone by her while I'm waiting for that.

How it came into my hands: Bought new on Amazon, based purely on my enthusiasm for Rawn.

Oh good gracious, this book! It's not even unremittingly dire, it has its moments. But it also has a lot of utterly sporktastic elements. I don't want to make jokes about the brain eater getting Rawn, because that's almost literally true: according to the author's note, she wrote it as a way to fight back against depression, and hoped that writing something utterly different from her fantasy stuff would help with getting back into writing again. This sort of explains why the book feels like the product of some struggling, moderately talented writer trying to get SF published, who gets frustrated at formulaic romance novels and decides, hey, I can do better than that. Except that Rawn is not a struggling rookie writer, she's a well respected fantasy author.

So, Spellbinder is a kind of paranormal romance. It is packed full with the the sort of secondary cliches that seem to come from reaction against the most hackneyed cliches of the genre. Like, stereotypical romance novels make the heroine really wet and the hero a brute, so we need a strong! feisty! heroine and a macho – yet sensitive! hero. There were some points where I was almost convinced I was reading a parody, but mostly it seems to take itself deadly seriously.

One thing Rawn can do like almost no other author I've ever read is keep me utterly hooked, even while I'm aware that the plot is ludicrous and the over the top romance is way beyond merely soppy. I almost missed watching dolphins once because I was so engrossed in something of hers. It was the same with Spellbinder; I just couldn't put it down, even though there is such a lot wrong with it. And in spite of the cliches and use of ethnic stereotypes where characterization should be, I believed in and cared about the characters.

The worst of all the terrible things about Spellbinder is definitely the cheesy romantic Irish-American bits. There just aren't words for how teeth-grindingly awful the Irish theme is. The book even seems slightly self-aware, because there are jokes about people who associate Ireland with leprechauns and shamrocks, and yet the view of Irish culture here is only one step less tacky than that. Rawn seems to be trying far too hard to be politically correct, with a carefully multi-cultural cast, but it just ends up seeming like tokenism and sometimes even dips into a rather unfortunate cavalier treatment of various minority cultures to provide background colour and exoticism. I dread to think how this book would read to an actual Wiccan; the (fairly minor) Jewish elements are patronizing and inaccurate, and the "Romany" stuff just made me cringe. (The setup is surprisingly fair to Christianity, even including nasty American Evangelical Christianity as well as the more romantic Catholicism, considering that it's such a fluffy-bunny Pagan context and especially considering a subplot about a sex-pervert priest.) Oh, and the self-righteous look at me I'm so tolerant I included gay characters bit is, well, not as bad as homophobia would be but pretty awful. It even goes as far as having Holly remark that Alec and Nick are the perfect couple, and never mind their gender, along with a lot of other references to how they are just like a real straight couple, really!

The central relationship is actually surprisingly good, in spite of the romance novel cliches. Yes, it's soppy, and it's predicated on the idea of mystical True Love, but if you can live with that it's not at all a bad example of the type. One aspect that really appealed was that the jeopardy of the boy-loses-girl phase doesn't come from the protagonists being idiots and failing to communicate, but from a genuine and partially external problem. (Though I really don't understand why Evan didn't just say that his apparent attack on the minister was actually saving him from being shot.) There is miscommunication, but they confront it and deal with it, and that makes me believe in them as a couple. I'm not generally impressed by couples who fight a lot and we're asked to believe that it's a sign of their true love, but I could almost believe it with Holly and Evan. It's quite common for writers to attempt a Beatrice and Benedict kind of interaction, but it's extremely easy for that to come out as more like Kate and Petruccio. Rawn sort of gets round that by giving Holly a lot of power on the level of being extremely rich and successful whereas Evan is from a much less privileged background, but it's still a bit uncomfortable.

That lack of evidence of real respect between the couple is probably a big reason why I didn't enjoy the sex scenes very much. Modern romances seem to expect quite a lot of explicit sex, and the sex scenes in Spellbinder are certainly competently written, if implausibly perfect. But they're not to my taste at all; the whole thing of a woman trying to assert her opinion and the man winning arguments by sheer force of sexiness is rather off-putting. And a large volume of descriptions of sex that is supposed to be mindblowingly wonderful gets boring when it's not your kink.

The rest of the plot is rather stupid, though mostly not egregiously so, and it does provide interludes of action to dilute the effect of all the true love bits. The climax is almost literally melodramatic, with a Satanic ritual to kill the hero and enslave the heroine, interrupted by rescuers because the villain wastes a load of time being all Satanic and villainous. But never mind, as I said it's fairly gripping and that makes up for the way it's a bit rambling and a bit cliched.


Whereaboooots: New York
Moooood: aggravatedaggravated
Tuuuuune: Katie Melua: Spellbound (!)
Discussion: 7 contributions | Contribute something
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darcydodo: dragon tile
From:darcydodo
Date:April 6th, 2008 12:21 am (UTC)
2 hours after journal entry, April 5th, 2008 07:21 pm (darcydodo's time)
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If I'd known you were thinking about Spellbinder, I would've warned you.

It makes me realize that Rawn's prodigious writing talent depends heavily on her world-building talent, and apparently the one is severely lacking without the other. Sadly.
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livredor: livre d'or
From:livredor
Date:April 6th, 2008 06:19 am (UTC)
8 hours after journal entry, 07:19 am (livredor's time)
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I think I did read your negative review before buying this. But I disagreed with you that the only thing that's good about Rawn is her world-building; I like her characterization too, and I hoped that would still be present in a mimetic setting.

Actually, apart from the unfortunate ethnic stereotypes, Spellbinder reminded me quite a lot of Dragon prince: the slightly uneven writing, the tendency to melodrama, the extremely soppy construct of true love, but at the same time, the absolutely gripping writing, the strong characterization, the ability to wrench the reader's emotions by being utterly cruel to characters, the strong sense of magic. I think the weaker elements were mostly sorted out once she got into her stride later in the series. But it's as if her illness has caused her to forget everything she learned about writing between Dragon prince and her more recent books, and she's starting again from scratch.

I'm not sure if that's more or less depressing than your conclusion: you seem to be arguing that Rawn simply can't write mimetic and should stick to fantasy, whereas I suspect she's forgotten how to write at all, and is essentially reworking Dragon prince in a new setting. (After all, hello, red-headed sorceress heroine and tough, powerful hero who nevertheless really needs her to make up for his bad childhood!) My interpretation suggests that she might get better again eventually, but it's also incredibly sad if I'm right. Either way, there is still a glimmer of hope for The captal's tower, I think.
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darcydodo: willow - crystal palace (nova25)
From:darcydodo
Date:April 6th, 2008 03:06 pm (UTC)
17 hours after journal entry, 10:06 am (darcydodo's time)
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I disagreed with you that the only thing that's good about Rawn is her world-building; I like her characterization too, and I hoped that would still be present in a mimetic setting.

I think her characterization's excellent! I just think (based on Spellbinder, not based on other books of hers that I've read, and this is the point I'm making which you seem to be overlooking) that a good deal of her excellent characterization depends on her having so carefully constructed every detail of intention and interaction and grounds for intention and interaction.

To me, if the sense of magic in Spellbinder was strong, it was only strong because the characters were witches, not because there was anything implicitly magical (or spellbinding) in the pages. Very unlike Dragon Prince, to my mind. Spellbinder was almost bathetic.

The different between your interpretation and mine seems to me that yours suggests she only may get better, and mine suggests that she will get better as soon as she starts creating her own worlds again (or writes in one she's already created, cf. Captal's Tower). So I really hope that I'm right and you're wrong.

ETA: Also, see your paragraph on cultural stereotypes for one very good reason why she needs to stick to her own worlds. Though she has gay characters everywhere, and it's never been a problem before.
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livredor: bookies
From:livredor
Date:April 8th, 2008 06:13 am (UTC)
2 days after journal entry, 07:13 am (livredor's time)
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I think I get it, you're saying that Rawn's characterization depends on creating the world in which the characters interact. Could be. I don't actually think Rawn is homophobic, as you say she's been sensible about the issue in other books, but it came across really weirdly here.

You've convinced me that your explanation for why Spellbinder is bad is less depressing than mine, but that doesn't mean you're right. I hope so though.

The other point where we disagree is that I don't rate Dragon prince as highly as you do. The series as a whole is very good, but that first book in particular is way soppy and melodramatic. Bathetic is probably right for some bits of Spellbinder, but some of the moments I enjoyed were the descriptions of the sensation of being in Circle and performing a Working. It's true that Rawn is drawing on imagery that is already established in terms of Wicca and other neo-Pagan writing, but she does so in a way that I found evocative. The thing with the Sunrunners making weavings of light is more original, but I can't at this point remember if it's more effective, probably, yeah.
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curious_reader: tiger cub
From:curious_reader
Date:April 6th, 2008 12:51 pm (UTC)
15 hours after journal entry
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Talking about stereo types. Jules Verne sterotypes an upper-class English man in his story "Around the world in 80 days". I am actually amused about. It sounds like Monty Python. I guess you know the story. I guess you read it in the original language French.
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livredor: livre d'or
From:livredor
Date:April 8th, 2008 06:16 am (UTC)
2 days after journal entry, 07:16 am (livredor's time)
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Oh, good point! I'm used to English men being normal, the default, so I don't expect them to be stereotypes. But lots of American stuff, films especially, do lean on stereotypes of English men, one of them being that they're all "upper class".

The Verne I read in translation when I was a kid, so I haven't picked it up in French since I learned French. I don't think I noticed that Fogg was a stereotype; I assumed he just behaved like that because he lived in the Olden Days! But you're making me think I should go back to Verne, definitely.
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cartesiandaemon: default
From:cartesiandaemon
Date:April 14th, 2008 11:14 pm (UTC)
9 days after journal entry
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Confusingly, I _also_ read a completely different book called _spellbinder_ as well. Some titles are so obvious you expect it (like how academic books are referred to by author, because every single book on group theory is called "group theory"). But I'm sure I had some sort of winner, a title that sounded a perfectly good choice, but I ran into about six different copies of. But I can't remember what it is now :)
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