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Sep 15

Book Review: Ragnarok and Roll by Keith R.A. DeCandido

I’ve snatched this description of the book from Amazon:

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.

5 comments

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  1. Deborah Grabien

    Actually, I find myself rolling my eyes at the entire “cultural appropriation” issue.

    Putting it simply, I’m Keith’s editor, and I was raised Jewish.

    Not sure how the popular phrase “cultural appropriation” applies to a Jewish editor editing references of being Jewish? I’m sorry if it doesn’t match up to someone’s ideal, but there you go: I edited every word of the collection, and I was raised Jewish.

    1. Mondyboy

      Deborah, thanks for the comment.

      I don’t ‘roll my eyes’ to cultural appropriation because I feel that not enough authors pay respect to cultures that are not their own. They borrow what they need and throw the rest away for the service of their story.

      I’m not saying Keith did this in regard to Cassie. What I am saying is that Cassie’s Jewishness felt like an afterthought rather than an integral part of who she was. Being Jewish should be more than just ticking the box.

      I appreciate that you as Keith’s Jewish editor don’t feel this way. That’s fine. My reaction is a subjective one. Others may and probably will disagree. But I don’t believe that you editing the book makes my criticism any less valid.

      I do have a question while you’re here. Was any thought given to removing the repetitive exposition from the earlier stories in the collection?

  2. Deborah Grabien

    Well, define “throwing the rest away.” If Keith (or myself, or anyone who actually writes fiction as opposed to historical texts, which are clearly a different matter) is writing a book in which the main focus involves a character being Jewish (or Italian, or anything else), then throwing away large chunks of that experience would be counterproductive, at the least.

    Original fiction is different. It’s very, very different.

    In this instance, Cassie and her family have the fabric of American-Jewish culture as one part of their cultural background. So do I, which is why I’m rolling my eyes at being accused of insensitivity about the issue. In Cassie’s case, as in mine, they don’t live wrapped in it. As a part of her upbringing, It casually informs a part of her reactions. It certainly doesn’t define her. That’s one reason I felt comfortable with the character as she lives; she is who she is, and that happens to be it. And who she is rings very real to my own 59 years on the planet.

    Actually, my dislike with the entire concept of “throwing away the rest in service to the story” is my own belief – unshakeable, as the author of 18 published novels as of 1 November – that, as a creator of original fiction, I am ABSOLUTELY in service to my story. I am not in servive to anyone’s individual culture; that’s for historians and people who write essays about it.

    If a novelist or other writer of fiction gets it wrong, I’d be the first to make noise. But having the character shrug off a lot of the small or inconvenient aspects of a theology that was only casually observed ib her house in the first place is not only fine by me, it rings true.

    I wouldn’t publish a writer who put cultural sensitivity above the character and the journey. I wouldn’t touch a novel that insisted on hanging every cultural bauble on the story or the character as if they were a Christmas trees wanting decoration. If it isn’t relevant to the story, if it doesn’t grow the character or the journey that character is on, it’s gone, out of there.

    In re the repetitive exposition, some was actually removed or toned way back. Leaving what was there in was Keith’s choice, and I respected it. His reasoning was that, since a few of the stories were published earlier in different places, running that thread through the earlier stories would be a way in for the reader to understand Cassie.

    1. Mondyboy

      “In this instance, Cassie and her family have the fabric of American-Jewish culture as one part of their cultural background. So do I, which is why I’m rolling my eyes at being accused of insensitivity about the issue. In Cassie’s case, as in mine, they don’t live wrapped in it. As a part of her upbringing, It casually informs a part of her reactions. It certainly doesn’t define her. That’s one reason I felt comfortable with the character as she lives; she is who she is, and that happens to be it. And who she is rings very real to my own 59 years on the planet.”

      I think this is the key point where we’re going to agree to disagree. My reaction – which is entirely subjective and based on my experiences – was that her Jewishness as culture and identity didn’t ring true. For me it felt like an after thought. Which of course is my opinion. It’s not right or wrong.

      “Actually, my dislike with the entire concept of “throwing away the rest in service to the story” is my own belief – unshakeable, as the author of 18 published novels as of 1 November – that, as a creator of original fiction, I am ABSOLUTELY in service to my story. I am not in servive to anyone’s individual culture; that’s for historians and people who write essays about it.”

      Well my view – which you seem to disagree with – is if you choose to borrow or appropriate from a culture that isn’t your own then you should be respectful. And respectful here means not getting things wrong and not using the culture as an affectation or a convenient plot point.

      “But having the character shrug off a lot of the small or inconvenient aspects of a theology that was only casually observed ib her house in the first place is not only fine by me, it rings true.”

      Understood. But I wasn’t expecting Cassie to suddenly keep Shabbos or the laws of purity. For me the missed opportunity was that as someone who identifies as Jewish she doesn’t wonder or consider how Jewish mythology and spiritualism fits into the revelation that she’s a fate goddess. I mean I’m not an observant Jew. But if I was told that Satan was real, I’d start to wonder what that means about my own cultural identity.

      “I wouldn’t publish a writer who put cultural sensitivity above the character and the journey.”

      So if you discovered that it was offensive to members of that culture to have their spirits or belief systems modified and changed in service of a story this wouldn’t concern you?

  3. Deborah Grabien

    Oy vey.

    Let’s agree to disagree. The character of the woman who is Cassie doesn’t delve deep; she’s been aimless wandering, just being for the time being. Ragnarok and Roll is not The Joy Luck Club; it isn’t meant to go deep and examine those questions, because Cassie herself isn’t in that place as a human being. Had Keith suddenly had her being that kind of person, it would have jarred with the rest of the woman he created. As an editor, that would have raised a huge red flag for me; I would have asked him what the point was. What you find to be a convenient plot device, I find running like water through her edgy “here we go again” relationships with her parents, especially her mother. In fact, it’s a more pleasant echo of the relationship I had with mine. And trust me, that’s authentic, and from the horse’s mouth.

    As you point out, the reaction is entirely subjective. Had he suddenly had her dancing horas or feeling a need to separate her meat from her dairy or saying “nu?” after every third sentence, *I* would have been offended, because that would have been “tacked on”.

    Winding up: I’m not going to debate the question of cultural appropriation with you, because I find the issue self-correcting and largely an intellectual tidbit for college courses. If a writer does it badly – delves into a culture that isn’t their own and writes it badly, using stereotypes – it will ring very false to most readers, and the book or its follow-ons won’t sell. But I don’t write fiction, or edit it, from any sense of intellectual college-course perspective. I write from the gut and heart, and as an editor, I expect my writers to do the same. End of story.

    My idea of completeness, from both chairs, puts me in service to the story, whatever that story is. In both chairs, I do it as right as I can. But of course, as a reader, you’re absolutely entitled to react differently.

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