Cassie Zukav has always been a bit of a weirdness magnet. Strange things always happened to her, even before she came to Key West for vacation and never left. She’s dealt with sea monsters and nixies and dragons, and shares her room with the ghost of an old wrecker captain, whom only she can see and hear. Now she spends her days leading scuba diving jaunts and her nights at Mayor Fred’s Saloon watching the house band, 1812, rock the joint. But when 1812 takes a break, they’re replaced by Jötunheim, a band everyone but Cassie loves. Their lead singer is Loki, the Norse trickster god, who is trying to bring about Ragnarok-the end of all that is. Cassie learns that she’s a Dís, a fate goddess, from Odin himself, the Allfather of the Norse gods. She’s the only one who can stop Loki from destroying the world. And then things get really weird…
I first came across Keith DeCandido’s fiction when he wrote “UNITed We Fall” in Decalog 3: Consequences. Going by his extensive bibliography this was one of his first pieces of published tie-in fiction. Since then DeCandido has written scads of the stuff, authoring books in the Doctor Who, Buffy, Star Trek, Supernatural and recently Leverage universes. And I haven’t even mentioned his comics, of which he’s written many, most of it in the Farscape-verse.
With so much TV Tie-in fiction it would easy to label DeCandido as a hack for hire, someone who can knock off a Star Trek novel in his sleep. But I’ve read a couple of his TV tie in novels and can say with total confidence that when he writes in any given universe he does so with passion. Books like The Next Generation Q &A are written with a deep knowledge and love of the subject. And they are rollicking rides. If you have any interest in the universes DeCandido plays in then I recommend his TV work.
But what about his original fiction? Although I own a good chunk of Keith’s non TV tie in work – his Dragon Precinct and SCPD novels – this collection is the first piece of his original fiction I’ve read.
The first thing that strikes me about Ragnarok and Roll is that Keith is a born story-teller. While he’s no great stylist (and to be fair I don’t think that’s his intention) through dialogue, character interaction and a keen sense of timing, DeCandido immediately engages the reader. You’ll have no problems tearing through these eight stories on a lazy Saturday afternoon.
And that ability to tell an entertaining story, to understand pacing and humour and suspense isn’t something we should downplay. In fact – and I don’t mean to sound patronising – newbie writers could do allot worse than see how DeCandido structures and paces a story. How he doesn’t rely on exposition and explanation. How at the forefront is his focus on character interaction and sense of place. The reason I gave a shit about any of these stories was because DeCandido knew exactly when to pull the strings.
The second thing that struck me about Ragnarok and Roll was how this was an urban fantasy where the main character didn’t (a) angst and moan and (b) wasn’t in the middle of a love triangle. Cassie Zukav’s adventures were refreshing in that they were just that, adventures where strange shit happened and she and her friends put things right. Yes, Cassie might be a fate goddess but that doesn’t mean she can’t have a job, have friends and enjoy her life. And it’s the idea that life goes on between the crazy, wacky adventures that grounds Cassie as a real person.
And then there’s Key West which DeCandido brings alive through an obvious love for the place. DeCandido’s Key West isn’t a one to one match for the actual island – he’s played around a little with some of the bars and eateries – but if anyone in Florida was looking for a copywriter to sell the place (not that it needs much selling coz I believe it’s a pretty popular tourist attraction) then Keith would be your man.
Actually, it’s his love and passion for Key West that highlights the main fault of this set of linked stories. Cultural Appropriation. Yes, those two words that no author since 2009 wants to ever hear linked to their work. Unfortunately, I think the stories on Ragnarok and Roll fall foul of cultural appropriation in two ways both general and specific.
(Before I go on, please stop now and read and Aliette de Bodard’s recent essay on her blog about writing ‘the other’. The rules she describes should be stapled to the walls of any writers office – if they’re considering developing any story that features cultures not their own).
The general relates to Cassie’s Jewishness. In the opening few stories mention is made that Cassie is Jewish, which is perfectly fine. The problem is that the mention of her cultural identity feels like an afterthought, something that DeCandido uses to differentiate rather than explore. Now, to be fair Keith does make it clear that Cassie – and for that matter her family – are not observant Jews —
We weren’t the most observant Jews ever, either, so the high holy days tended to come and go without much going on.
— and so one shouldn’t expect Cassie to be thinking about her faith and her culture throughout the course of these stories. And anyway, I can hear someone saying, why does every character in the existence of literature need to bring their cultural baggage into every story?
Well… putting aside the strawman element of that question I would argue that our culture, even if we’re mostly apathetic to it, still plays a part in who we are. But even if we don’t want each story to scream out: CASSIE IS A JEW! CASSIE IS A JEW! I expected Keith to do something with that cultural identity, even if it’s little more than Cassie wondering what it might mean to be both Jewish and a fate goddess. From a religious viewpoint, the two are oil and water and that conflict has the potential to generate both character development and story.
Of course I’m willing to accept that the above says more about my own hang ups then it does about Keith’s choices as a writer. My excuse is that there are very few self identified Jewish characters in genre fiction. And so when one appears I do sit up and take notice. In this case there was bugger all to notice.
Still, it’s not the only instance of cultural appropriation in the collection. The second is more specific and involves the Calusa.
I know very little about Native American traditions and culture. What I do know is that the use of Native American spiritualism in genre fiction – whether it’s Indian burial grounds or having a wise old Native American provide cryptic advice to our heroes – is a well worn and offensive cliche. And it was annoying and frustrating to see Keith fall into this trap with his 3-part Cayo Hueso story-line.
We find out in this, the longest piece in the collection, that the Last of the Calusa – a powerful entity that’s been awoken by Loki – is taking its revenge on its enemies – essentially anyone who has Native American blood and lives in Key West. Although I don’t know anything about the internecine battles between Native American tribes, making the Last of the Calusa – a real tribe that was really wiped out – a vengeful spirit discriminately killing other Native Americans was not only an awful cliche but showed a lack of cultural sensitivity.
This story might have been saved if it was other Native Americans saving the day. But their involvement is next to nil. Instead, two white Jews and Odin – can you get more European? – stop this terrible Native American spirit.
And this is why people should read what Aliette de Bodard says. Because if you’re going to use another culture, whether as the good guys or the bad guys, you really need to understand what water you’re treading in.
I have a couple of other minor quibbles. The Table of Contents in the ebook are, for some reason, in the back of the book not the front. And while I know the first couple of stories are reprints from elsewhere, consideration should have been given to editing out the couple of paragraphs that repeat what we already know about Cassie and her friends.
This review is long because I actually gave a shit about Cassie and her adventures. Cultural appropriation aside, I enjoyed them. They were fun. I hope Keith writes more. I also hope he explores Cassie’s Jewishness – though no need for a story about her facing the Golem… really – especially in regard to being a fate goddess. And I also hope people give the series a go. Keith knows how to tell an engaging story and that’s not a commodity that as common as you’d think.