Monday, August 15, 2011

The Twilight Saga - The Official Illustrated Guide

Hey, it's the 120th post. Let's go completely ballistic on Twilight!


Heaven knows it could use one...


While I’m enjoying a reprieve from regular chapters of the love between two angsty fools, I got the idea into my head to do something of a review for the series handbook. You know, the one where the author more than indicates she does think the fantasy genre is carte blanche to do whatever she pleases. Seeing as I’m not actually going to be researching it to resolve problems unless dates are involved. Partly because reading the guidebook tends to cause more problems for the series than it solves anyway.

As long as I’m going over the definitive be-all, end-all repository of sparkly vampire knowledge, this seems as good a place as any to say I’m not planning to discuss the topic of vampire parenthood in too much detail. If I even live to make it that far. To be totally honest, I hate it when people waste their effort and my time trying to make fantasy sound scientifically feasible. I care more about consistency and coherence, so I might talk about that, but no in depth-examination of how the miracle of Renesmee came to be. Sorry if I’m letting anyone down. I will say that by “My scientific reasoning works for me,”* I get the feeling Meyer really meant the perfect romance wouldn’t be complete without the perfect child.

* (So what? You’re the one who came with up it. Maybe I’m not published yet, but I understand I’m connected to what I write in a way somebody reading it won’t be and might make assumptions about what people understand and what sounds good. As a result, it doesn’t hurt to have someone else around who isn’t afraid to tell you there are issues with your work. I kind of doubt Steph had anyone like that)

...and so I thought of giving Bella stuff for free, starting a grand tradition.

The book opens with 80 pages of interviews between Steph and fellow youth author Shannon Hale. Where she finds another way to duck criticism by saying she’s more amazed there are people who do get her books than there are people who don’t. And takes pride in writing for children (I think we underestimate what our kids can handle, but all the same I sure as hell don’t want my daughter relating to anything about Bella Swan), saying it keeps her humble and prevents her from becoming one of those “ ‘I am an author’ authors”. You know, if you’re smug about your humility, you’re not really being humble. I’m pretty sure Weird Al was making fun of that in “Amish Paradise”. Besides, considering what Bella tries to pull in the next book when she's alone with Edward, and with the little sparkly miracle they're given in the book after, I'm a little reluctant to say this series's target audience consists of "children".



To go off on a tangent (which might mark me as one of those “I am an author” authors in Steph’s mind, but I don’t care), while I find writing a wonderful creative outlet myself, I’d feel cheap if I didn’t try to do the best job I could and learn how to get better at it. Especially the stuff I plan to share with other people. Most of my stories are based on what I find interesting and thus would like to write about, but that doesn’t excuse me from making an effort. I’ve read non-Twilight stories with abysmal regard for spelling, grammar, clarity, pacing, and support for the story’s postulates (In Twilight's case, Edward spying on a girl without her knowledge and confining her because he doesn't like her friends proves how true his love is). I find it all extremely disrespectful of the writer to do that to the people that would read their stuff. That Steph’s so closed off to criticism she invented “the Rob Effect”* to brush off the outrage over the mess she made of the last book, well I can’t say I think much of the pride she takes in being a writer. If you’re going to share your work with the world, let alone brag about turning kids on to reading with it, don’t skimp on the effort.

* (Should you not have heard the term, “the Rob Effect” is Steph saying that people will be able to like Breaking Dawn [generally regarded as the most slapped-together of all the books] after a while, like how people originally didn’t like Robert Pattinson as the choice for Edward in the movies. Maybe part of the reason people warmed up to Rob is he seems like a pretty nice guy and really isn’t a bad actor despite the absolute shit he’s given to work with in the Twilight movies? I can tell you Breaking Dawn isn’t a misunderstood work of genius. Besides, the furor over anything will die down after a while. That’s why I keep dragging my feet on committing to reviews of another book. Most people don’t care anymore)

After the interviews, there’s a section on what exactly it means to be a vampire in the Meyerverse. What is and isn’t true, how the conversion works, the rules of being a vampire (well, the RULE), and how hybrid offspring work. It’s kind of funny to read all in one place like that, but I stand by my earlier beliefs that authors can explain themselves in the books and make good use of the space those books allot them. Meyer doesn’t do much of either.

As I noted in one of the last New Moon reviews, a heck of a lot of the guidebook's given over to profiles for every character, no matter how small their role in the larger series. First thing I feel I should mention is little sidebars of highlights from the main text. They’re all over the book, actually, but my favorite one’s in this part.


Hate to break it to you Steph, but there are names for those things Edward and the Cullens do: grand theft auto, arson, breaking and entering (or at the very least, trespassing), stalking, arguably coercion…They have names because they’re crimes. Yes, they are very much illegal. They're not any less illegal because he's somebody's dream guy. Although they might be less illegal because I have no trouble imagining the Cullens bribing a judge to look the other way if things ever did go to court...

As I've said before, it seems like the only thing they have any scruples against doing is taking a sentient life. That your heroine’s the daughter of someone in the law enforcement profession (and that he’s a lot more likable than her and Edward) does a little to remind us. Plus, as I’ve brought up several times, the fact is those acts are usually highly unnecessary based on what we know when they happen, so justifying them’s kind of hard. Imagine for a moment that Carlisle was summoned to testify before a jury who would keep it a secret that he’s a vampire and his family was fighting an evil vampire when they burned down the ballet studio. How would he explain having to torch the place after they already ripped James limb from limb*? Or stealing a car for the not-at-all-hurried trip home after Bella’s first meeting with the Volturi?

* (Just to prove I’m not a completely unfair asshole, the book does explain this. Sort of. Unless burnt, vampires can eventually “reconstitute” themselves after being ripped apart. It doesn’t say how that works, though [a legend we hear in Eclipse does, but it just goes further to show how Meyer's setting Bella up not to be a vampire, but some kind of goddess], and there were other ways they could’ve dealt with James permanently without having to torch an entire building)


The  profiles include categories on where they were born, hair and eye color, who changed them into a vampire, their special powers, their education and hobbies and physical description. Somehow this series gets even more shallow with Bella’s description, in that “Bella’s features were heightened and perfected by her transformation.”

In other words, on Bella.

I’d like to point out that when the book describes the enhancement of someone’s physical attractiveness by becoming a vampire, it doesn’t mention anything about its utility for capturing prey. Only that it has to do with their skin turning into a diamond-like substance. I can’t imagine being attracted to a woman more because she’s also a diamond. I look for different things in a rock than a member of the opposite sex. Especially since it would either make her sparkly or just pale depending on the weather, neither of which I find attractive. There's also the ridiculous implication that there's one universal standard for beauty. Remember, this isn't Bella talking. This is an impartial clinical description.

So we're admitting Edward and Carlisle picked romantic partners based on their looks?

The profiles even have “famous quotes” from the characters, which depending on who compiled them either show how bad Steph’s idea of immortal dialogue is, or how bad she is at writing it in the first place. “I think that boy is in love with you” is a memorable quote? In what universe? Not the one where this book was published.


Click 'em. You'll be glad you did.

After the profiles there are plot summaries, both by date and by chapter. They’re not only quicker, cheaper, but also a more entertaining way to go through the series. However, probably even more so than reading my reviews, you get a sense that very little of note actually happens in these books. Take, for example, the highlights of chapter 26 of Breaking Dawn: Charlie visits the family, Bella explains the sources of her daughter’s name (the summary even stops to explain it), Charlie approves of Bella’s new look, Bella gets angry about comments from Emmett, Bella beats Emmett at arm-wrestling. Can you STAND the excitement?!

Or how about something we’ve covered already, like chapter 11 of Twilight: Edward and Bella watch a movie in Biology, Bella’s “hyperaware” of Edward sitting next to her, Mike warns Bella about Edward, Edward asks Bella about her favorite things (which didn’t need to be relayed to the reader), Billy and Jacob see them together.

To show you I’m not deliberately picking the most boring possible chapters to attack, we’ll do a couple in sequence. Consider chapter 12: Bella’s afraid Billy will tell her dad about hanging out with Edward (nothing about convincing him not to), Bella sees Rosalie glaring at her at lunch, Edward explains this could destroy his family’s secrecy if things go wrong, Bella tells her “friends” she’s not going to Seattle, Edward meets Bella, they drive into the woods and hike five miles.

And chapter 13: Edward reveals his sparkling skin, there’s a large paragraph trying to make it sound like they don’t just spend most of the chapter talking about how yes, Edward’s a vampire, “Edward carries Bella back to the truck piggyback,” Edward kisses Bella.

Riveting.

So...Bella and Edward had sex.

There’s a section on the specifics of the cars the books’ major characters own (which was even a category in the profiles). Thing is, even though I have a Y chromosome I don’t usually care about the car a fictitious character drives unless it’s a major story element (like the Mach 5) or it says something about them. For instance, Harry Dresden’s car, the Jaime Reyes, says he cares more about making the world a little less dark than making big bucks. That magic doesn’t play well with advanced technology. That he’s kind of a nerd. I’ve already said what I think the Cullens’ wheels say about them, and in case you’re just tuning in it was nothing flattering.

Almost as pointless, to me anyway, is a section on inspirations and the official Twilight play list. And before you ask, yes, there’s a lot of Muse in there. I haven’t been able to connect with the story in anything but a derisory fashion, so playing the author’s recommended songs during certain parts hasn’t helped the experience any. Although it does make me a little uncomfortable considering I’ve toyed with the idea of something similar for my own works a time or two. Okay, actually gone ahead and done one a time or two.


Then there’s a section on international cover galleries and fanart. Which depresses me because evidently some very talented artists are fans of this series.


Although some of the pictures I just don’t get. Is that Edward in the bottom right, next to Bella’s Polaroid?


And this one…confuses me. It looks like it’s meant to be an artistic rendering of all the things Alice sees thanks to her visions. So why are there werewolves in there? That's one of the few things about her power Meyer sticks with.


After the art there’s a selection of “outtakes” which I’ve avoided so far, because I can’t quite work up the guts to see what wasn’t good enough to go in looks like. At least let me finish Kamen Rider Altis before I go totally insane, okay?

At the end there’s an FAQ in the back for general questions that don’t belong anywhere else. The most notable is the first, which is the significance of the various pieces of cover art. The apple on the first book is the forbidden fruit of pursuing Edward (as indicated by the Biblical epigraph). The wilting flower on New Moon is supposed to represent loss (which doesn’t last and only happens because of that “overthinking” thing Edward doesn’t do), and the not-quite severed ribbon on Eclipse is meant to symbolize Bella’s failure to make a clean break from her old life. It’s Bella, what’d you expect?

Most worthy of derision is the cover of Breaking Dawn. The chess pieces represent Bella. “They show her moving from the least significant player, the pawn, at the beginning of the Saga to the most important player, the queen, at the end of the series.” Because the universe didn’t revolve around Bella from day one. Also, aren’t the pawn and the queen “pieces,” while the people who use them are the “players”? I want to say Meyer thought she was going for a theatrical analogy there. And the queen is the most “useful” piece, but the “most important”? Losing which piece is an instant game over? And while it might have to do with Bella having her species removed, can I just point out there’s no way in hell for a red pawn to become a white queen? Let’s add “needs to avoid chess allusions” to Meyer’s little list, shall we?


“The chessboard also hints at Breaking Dawn’s resolution, where the battle with the Volturi is one of wits and strategy, not physical violence.” Or where Stephenie Meyer confirmed once and for all that she can’t show her characters willing to go all the way for their goals. The reason people were mad about the climax of Breaking Dawn is it’s set up like we’ll be looking forward to a big battle, what with the descriptions of all the vampires, all their fancy powers, and preparations for combat should it become necessary. Something truly epic to close out the series and show our leads standing firm against horrific odds in the name of love. But all they do is stand there. It’s a stupid copout, unless you’ve already had your hopes dashed like a stale graham cracker by how pitiful the conflict’s been leading up to that.

It even explains the meaning behind the puzzle pieces on this book and the emptying hourglass on The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner. I’m hoping those were included for completeness, because the idea that the significance of those two pieces of cover art isn’t obvious from the name/concept of the work alone is kind of insulting.

And there you have it, my thoughts on the repository of all things Twilight in four pages. To close out what might be the last review on Steph’s work for a while, I’d like to counterpoint the Twilight series with another fantasy series. No, not Harry Potter. Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files, which I mentioned above. It’s not a romance, and it’s not really for young readers…

Yeah.

…but it manages to take a lot of the elements Meyer’s books are supposed to have and make them work. The main character, a wizard/P.I. by the name of Harry Dresden, is a genuinely good person, but he has a tragic past (an actual one), has demonstrable personality flaws like a short fuse and tendency to stick his neck out too far, and has made bad calls that have earned him powerful enemies even among the people who are supposedly on his side. He flouts the law sometimes in pursuit of the greater good, like by owning a gun. In Chicago. And because almost nobody believes in magic, he hardly ever gets any congratulations for a job well done. You believe it when he says his life sucks, instead of thinking it sounds like the whining of every overly dramatic teenager ever.

Harry never just cruises to victory. We all know the good guy always wins, but after the first couple books I found myself thinking “what will victory cost him?” Harry doesn’t get the girl. Any of them. In fact right when he’s about to she sacrifices all memory of him in order to save his life. In fact she gets a vampiric thirst for blood and has to basically give up all hope of a love life because she might slip and eat them. Why does that sound familiar? Even though I’ll admit Eclipse is a little better than the previous two books, I was never for a minute worried that the characters were in danger, that Bella and Edward’s relationship wouldn’t make it, or that they might receive anything less than total victory.

Harry has fantastic supernatural powers, but there are visible limits to his abilities and knowledge, and a clear feeling that there really is someone who’ll smack him down hard for violating the rules of his kind. In the first book we meet a guy who makes sure wizards obey the rules, Morgan, who’d just love for Harry to give him a reason to drop the blade on our hero. Unlike Alice’s “whatever works best at the moment” precognition, and the vampire police letting the kids go with a nebulous warning we know won’t become a believable problem.

Things happen in Butcher’s books. I don’t know that I could find five different things to mention about any given chapter like in the summaries in The Official Illustrated Guide, but I’m on the fourth book (fifth if you count Welcome to the Jungle) and not a single chapter’s passed without at least one fairly significant thing happening. The book’s going somewhere and every chapter is a step in that journey, instead of interminable pages of sitting around wallowing in all the nothing that’s happening.

And while it might seem like Butcher took “it’s fantasy” as a pass to include whatever he felt like (there’s wizards, faeries, demons, dragons, trolls, several varieties of werewolf and vampire…), the stuff by and large clicks together without being overwhelming. Not everything’s revealed at once, but enough groundwork is laid that you don’t feel like something wasn’t mentioned before because the author hadn’t thought of it before. In Twilight the author doesn’t reach as far into the fantastic as Butcher (at least that’s what I think as someone who hates sparkling vampires because it’s stupid more than because it’s contrary to the norm), but fails to make what she does focus on compelling. Plus, the characters and their world are so poorly-etched in Twilight, when something new comes up it feels like something that wasn’t mentioned before because the writer hadn’t thought of it yet. Even if the idea actually had been there since Steph started seriously thinking about sequels.

I genuinely get the feeling that Jim Butcher has some feminist leanings because of Harry’s closest confidante. She’s looked down by her superiors for heading up the department that looks into supernatural crimes, since none of them really buy into that stuff, but hell if she’ll let that stop her from being a good cop. Plus she could knock our hero’s teeth out if she felt like it despite being a regular old human, and damn if she doesn’t get the urge sometimes. (To explain why would require me to go off on a little tangent, but you see, Harry takes a while to tell her everything he knows that might help her fight supernatural menaces because the more she knows, the more likely she might go down with him if something gets out of hand. She resents this because it’s her job to face danger to protect innocent people. Her concern’s valid, but Harry’s is too. If Edward doesn’t tell Bella things that would be handy to know for someone who associates with the supernatural as much as she does, it seems to be because of the dubious idea that he thought he could protect her, because he enjoys being one step ahead of her, or because he just doesn’t because he’s a moron).

Pictured: bad grammar. Also pictured: actual inter-character conflict.

Karrin Murphy’s a good example of how to write an empowered female character who’s still relatable. As for Twilight in that regard…you know what, Meyer? I may dislike Alice less than your other characters, but she’s in no way proof that you’re not “anti-female.” She’s super-girly*, kind of hyper, only seems intimidating when compared to uber-loser Bella, and has a potentially cool power ruined by inconsistency. Try again.

* (Which isn’t in and of itself a bad thing, but with the narrowly-defined gender roles in these books and all the other things weighing her down…damn I’m all up on the footnotes in this post)

Following in that vein, you get a definite sense from The Dresden Files that characters and supernatural beings are badasses, yet they also have visible limits and weaknesses too. Even plain old humans; in the second book Murphy drives off a monster that takes the worst Harry has to throw at it. All I’ll say is one author being discussed here likes to do more than talk about how tough their characters are.

Lastly, for books that tend to have actual end-of-the-world stakes, The Dresden Files have something of a sense of humor about themselves. The ages-old spirit who Harry turns to for things he doesn’t know is a dirty old pervert, faeries will tell you anything for a pizza, the real reason wizards wear those big flowing robes is how cold it gets in their labs, and “flickum bicus” are the magic words to light candles. Harry's read the Evil Overlord List. It has him comparing little demons combining to make a big demon to Voltron. It has the phrase "I put the 'ick' in 'magic'."

And can you see Edward Cullen fighting off the bad guys in the grand climax of an adventure wearing nothing but a stolen pair of boxer shorts covered with yellow duckies? In an actual book Stephenie Meyer would actually share? If Twilight ever tried to poke fun at itself, the unintentional ridiculousness of everything else would make the whole series collapse in on itself.

I guess it comes down to this: being a vampire never seemed hard. Never in all the words Stephenie Meyer’s written. But I did believe this about being a wizard: “It’s scary as hell. You start learning the kinds of things that go bump in the night and you figure out that ‘ignorance is bliss’ is more than just a quotable quote. And it’s--It’s so damned frustrating. You see people getting hurt. Innocents. Friends. I try to make a difference, but I usually don’t know what the hell is going on until somebody is already dead. Doesn’t matter what kind of job I do--I can’t help those folks.” (Summer Knight, p. 252)

That’s one more thing Butcher did better, now that I think about it. Working the source of the damn title into the plot.

Jim, I really like your books. I’m sorry to have compared them to Twilight. But I do feel good having recommended something infinitely better than a 2000+ page Suefic.

2 comments:

  1. 2000+ page Suefic . . . That says it ALL.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Well shoot, why'd I bother with the rest then??

    ReplyDelete