Sime~Gen Inc. Presents
"Those Who Lack Identity"
Bloody Bones by Laurell K. Hamilton, Ace Fantasy, 1996
Cetaganda by Lois McMaster Bujold, Baen Science Fiction, 1996
Cloud's Rider by C. J. Cherryh, Warner Aspect hc, 1996
The Warding of the Witch World by Andre Norton, Warner Aspect hc,1996
Wind Whispers, Shadow Shouts by Sharon Green, Avonova, 1995
The Cup of Morning Shadows, Book Two of the Twelve Treasures, by Rosemary Edghill, DAW Fantasy, 1995
The Vampire Viscount by Karen Harbaugh, Signet Regency Romance, 1995
The Reluctant Cavalier by Karen Harbaugh, Signet, 1996
Scotland The Brave, a Highlander novel by Jennifer Roberson, Warner Aspect pb, 1996
The Knowledge of Water by Sarah Smith, Ballantine Books hc, 1996
Staring at the stack of books for review this month, wondering what I had learned from them and why I had enjoyed them all, I pondered the Guardian at the Gate's trick question, "Who Are You?" -- one possible question you must answer to be allowed onto the Astral Plane. And I thought about the current subjects in the e-mail writers' workshops I've been doing about readers' and writers' unconscious assumptions. Suddenly, it came to me that there is yet another unexamined assumption behind the question, "Who Are You?"
The mere posing of this question by an authority figure sends us on a quest within ourselves to find The Answer -- on the assumption that there does exist an answer and it must reside inside ourselves or we'd never have been asked. That's what we've been searching for in the books reviewed in this column since March '96. What if the assumption's not true? What if there is no answer -- or the answer does not reside inside ourselves?
As I mentioned in an earlier column when we began this series on the Guardian's Trick Questions, Quai Chang Caine, the protagonist of the TV series Kung Fu and Kung Fu: The Legend Continues answers, "I am a man, as any other." That is, he has no identity other than his gender. This is of course an ideal of Oriental philosophy, a goal to attain by a lifetime of hard work.
I'm asking a different question here. Thinking like a science fiction writer, I wondered, "What if some percentage of human beings are born without an identity, and can never attain one -- in fact, should never attain one?" That it isn't a virtue to lack identity -- nor is it a flaw or handicap. It is a stage of being, a valid and proper intermediate developmental stage in the life of a Soul (place goose bumps here).
As an occultist with Kabbalistic tendencies, I found this to be an exciting question.
As a writer, and a teacher of writers, I found this to be one of those great, "A-ha!" experiences.
If it is true of any substantial percentage of human beings alive on Earth
today, that they lack identity, then it would explain a long list of Great Mysteries. To
name just a few:
And I'm wondering if what seems to me to be a great revelation isn't common knowledge among the really big-name bestselling authors.
At Worldcon in Los Angeles, I moderated a panel on vampire novels. As we took our places at the table, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro sat down next to me. This was the last week in August -- she had not seen my review of Mansions of Darkness in the October issue. Most of those in the audience hadn't read it but intended to, so we couldn't discuss it in much depth; however, I asked her about some of my observations.
In the October column, I said that St. Germain seems a perfect example of a vampire in that he exists but doesn't live -- because he doesn't grow and change. For example, he keeps getting himself into trouble by helping people -- the exact opposite of what Barbara Hambly's vampires do. (Barbara was also on this panel.) I attributed St. Germain's behavior to his training as an Egyptian priest, and his own priesthood initiation long before that (which made him a vampire). She said, no, that his behavior was entirely due to his having been the son of a King -- a noble, raised to be responsible for people.
I also asked about the "Word" she tosses at us in each of her books. She admitted she reads the Oxford English Dictionary and searches for delicious words for us -- and indeed, must often fight with copyeditors about the Word in each book.
And she made the point that for her, the driving power behind the St. Germain novels isn't the vampirism aspect of his being -- but the exploring of historical settings. History itself is a passion of hers; the novels, a vehicle to take us there.
Afterwards, I had an interesting conversation with a fan of my Sime~Gen novels who, on the strength of my recommendation, had tried the St. Germain novels. She had been disappointed -- couldn't get into them, and couldn't see what I liked in them at all. She is a Forever Knight fan, a special fan of La Croix. It's true, the St. Germain novels don't have much in the way of an evil vampire, or an antagonist worthy of St. Germain or who could be a serious threat to his existence. Most of the threat comes from the mass of people around him who could overpower him, and often do. In other words: from history -- which is as it should be in a series where history is the hero.
Now, generally speaking, I dislike historicals in any subgenre. But I have a passion for the St. Germain novels. Why?
The answer is simple. I like them for the same reason this other fan didn't. Chelsea does what Marion Zimmer Bradley does -- she presents a subject for which she has a passion and shares that passion with the reader. An ongoing character who is an evil vampire would detract from that subject -- history. As it happens, I, personally, lack the identity particle that responds to history -- and Chelsea provides it. At the same time, I can (possibly because of past-life experiences) identify with the plight of a noble beset by and brought down by the masses. This other fan is more attuned to the plight of an ordinary person trapped by power and authority figures -- and struggling to escape; or the reverse, the power figure struggling to hold the ordinary person for his/her own good.
Without something to identify with, and something to fulfill a lack, any consumer will find a work of art useless, pointless, a waste of time. It's not the art that's at fault, nor the consumer -- it's the fit between them. Perhaps people have an affinity for art that supplies the particles of identity that they lack?
Bloody Bones by Laurell K. Hamilton is the fifth book in a series I've been reviewing with consistent high praise. This one leaves Anita Blake's werewolf-schoolteacher lover at home and takes us out on an adventure with the Master Vampire who is Anita Blake's suitor. Bloody Bones is not a café this time -- it's a restaurant, and it's run by Elves, or people of Elven descent who have this little problem with their magic. It is a wonderfully good read. But there's nothing shallow or superficial about this series. Every novel gives me something else to think about, and there was a lot packed into this one besides the subject of this column.
But here I noticed the entrenched belligerence of Anita Blake. Yes, this situation with the Master Vampire wanting to court her is driving her to the wall, especially when she has to work with him a whole weekend. The author is testing her to destruction. But Blake's defensiveness when her identity is challenged leads me to wonder -- if she is so strong in her self-knowledge, why be so stridently defensive? Because the last thing she wants to discover about herself is that she has no identity?
Or perhaps she has an identity, but fears that maybe she doesn't? But how could anyone -- fictional or not -- suspect they have no identity? Unless maybe -- just maybe -- she's met people who don't? After all, she raises the dead for a living, and is the official vampire executioner for a three-state region. Or maybe she's even met some living folk who don't have an identity? Anita's quandary might well appeal to readers who likewise fear that maybe they don't have an identity. Could there be readers out there who have met people who don't have an identity -- and thus fear that they themselves might not have one?
Cetaganda by Lois McMaster Bujold, is another "can't put it down" read. It is the latest Vorkosigan Adventure, and fills in a blank in the series' chronology. Readers new to the series can read this as a stand-alone novel, then check the chronology in the back of the book to find where it fits into the chronicles of Miles Vorkosegan's life.
All you need to know that isn't emphasized in the narrative is that Miles has a secret identity as the admiral of a mercenary fleet and takes his orders directly from his royal cousin who currently sits the throne -- a position Miles wants him to keep because Miles is third in line (after his father) and wants to be fourth as soon as possible. In this novel, he never uses his secret identity -- he's playing the part of a diplomat -- so it's hardly mentioned.
Vorkosegan has no belligerence about him -- apparently feels no need to defend or establish his identity. Despite his short stature, his birth defect caused by the first assassination attempt against him, and the occasional assassination attempt aimed at him now, his comfort with his identity makes him a pleasant character to identify with. It's other people's opinions that give him problems, not his opinion of himself. A reader who had a similar comfort level with their own identity -- or a reader who lacked an identity entirely -- would find visiting this character's life a pleasant evening's read. Most of the rest of this series has more humor to it, but I enjoyed watching Miles play the role he was born to, Royal Heir, instead of Renegade Mercenary/Secret Agent.
Cloud's Rider by C. J. Cherryh, is the eagerly awaited sequel to Rider At the Gate which I reviewed with such enthusiasm a few months ago. There were many lessons to ponder in that first novel, and this one is, I think, even better. The young kid who was the main protagonist of the first novel is beginning to think and feel more like an adult, so it's easier for me to make my way into his head.
Here, too, we find the psychic bond between the human and the quasi-intelligent animal that is such a popular device. I have to admit I'm a sucker for it, and with this new idea to consider, I'm wondering if these "psychic bond" themes have anything to do with missing identity particles within the readership they are aimed at? Is it that even human beings with a firm and complete identity nevertheless don't feel "complete" within themselves -- and thus can believe the idea that somewhere out there is the missing piece? Is this like Adam, the first man, searching for his missing rib?
The Warding of the Witch World by Andre Norton is the conclusion to the Witch World saga which gives the whole series a defined shape. The book is about a magickal engineering project to close the gates between realities or worlds, a large book with multiple points of view and multiple stories all on a collision course.
I face a possible conflict of interests here, raving about this series, though I've made no secret of my adoration for Norton as a writer and Norton's writings in general. She did publish one of my short stories in a Witch World anthology, a vampire story. And one of my trilogies was written as a tribute to her, specifically to the first of her novels I ever read, Star Rangers.
With that disclosure on the record, I have to point out that the Witch World novels are adult fare -- they have romance as well as adventure and magick. They have implicit feminist statements, and bonding with animals, and love at first sight, and mysterious ancient ruins, and tangled politics, and -- well, almost anything you can think of has been tackled in this series somewhere. The woman is a voracious scholar, and one of the best writers ever, anywhere.
If you haven't read anything in this series, run, don't walk, to your nearest library and scarf up as many as you can lay hands on. There are no two alike, so if you find one you can't "get into" -- try another. Mirror moon ponds, and Stonehenges, and a whole mountain range plowed up and turned over like a potato field because a war had been fought there with magick -- and you can still smell the magick out there. If I have any identity at all, I got a good chunk of it from Norton's work, though my youth predates Witch World by a lot.
Wind Whispers, Shadow Shouts by Sharon Green. I've gotten behind in my Sharon Green reading. This is part of the series I've been reviewing consistently that started with Dark Mirror, Dark Dreams. In this one, Sharon deals with four major plot-moving characters simultaneously. These characters seem to have identities they treasure and hang on to firmly -- but they're not overly intense about it. They're not afraid they'll lose their identities if they concede an argument. I think that's what I love about these characters. On the other hand, what I love about these novels is that the main characters can and often do lose their identities! These novels include shape-changing magic, and costume-changing magic, and illusion magic as well as real magic all mixed with an sf premise of alternate universes strung together somehow -- and worse yet, the possibility of secret masters of that universe. Spooky stuff for the identity-challenged.
But overall, it's a love story -- without being a romance. And that shows us how two people can be two parts of one whole even though each is whole and complete all alone. Now just look around at your friends, neighbors and relatives. How many couples do you know like that? Is this novel series fantasy? Or is it reality?
The Cup of Morning Shadows, Book Two of the Twelve Treasures, by Rosemary Edghill. I reviewed the first book in this series with great praise. I think I saw an ad for the third somewhere. Collect them. This also has a love story at the core, and isn't really a romance. While these people are running around between alternate universes chasing magical objects of political significance, there's actually a real drama unfolding, character growth, identity searching. These people are looking for themselves. Such novels are very popular. It must be that a lot of readers can understand the feeling of having lost oneself. But it never seems to occur to the characters that it's all right not to have an identity.
The Vampire Viscount by Karen Harbaugh. Karen is someone I ran into on AOL and we got to e-chatting, and I asked for these novels to read on the plane to and from California. The Vampire Viscount is published in one of the more trivial lines of the romance genre Signet Regency. But it's got some serious meat to it. Here the vampire has heard that a cure for his condition would be possible if he could get a virgin to love him. Finding a virgin in Regency England turned into quite a chore. But it was the love part that proved hardest. Personally, I want to read a sequel to this one.
Then I read the galleys of Harbaugh's forthcoming novel, The Reluctant Cavalier, and it proved to me that this is a writer who knows the craft. It's not a vampire novel -- it is, in fact, completely mundane and trivial, and plays fast and loose with accuracy of historical attitudes -- as do many of these novels today.
In contrast, Yarbro keeps her characters' attitudes as close to correct for their period as she possibly can. Romance genre is different though. The point of the romance genre seems to be that no one is complete without their "other half" -- and that point would not be so believable to such a wide segment of the population (not all female) if everyone in the world had a complete identity. Would it?
Scotland The Brave, a Highlander novel by Jennifer Roberson, is a lovely novel based on the TV Series, Highlander. Roberson has a good feel for what this show is really about. And being martial arts trained, and knowing horses, Roberson got a lot of background detail just right. The postulate that works so well for me in this novel is MacLeod's emotional response to Scotland and the politics of the situation with England.
The Immortals are all foundlings, and thus lack some identity particles. MacLeod's lack was apparently completely filled by his foster parents and his upbringing to be a leader of his clan. When that position in life was stolen from him by his first death, it left him adrift for centuries. In modern times, he really believes he's overcome the loss. This novel asks -- Well, has he?
Very few of us were born heir to the leadership of a Scottish clan -- but hardly any of us fail to resonate to Duncan's feelings. Is there a reason for that universality of response?
Different authors approach these universal experiences of identity and loss from different angles; some show us what it's like to have the emptiness filled by a partner, some show us what it's like to feel complete within ourselves, some show us the pain of that void where identity ought to be, and some present us with how life could be if we just ignore the problem.
In previous columns, I've talked about the way novels are conversations in progress among circles of authors who all know each other -- or at least read each other's books. And by following these circles you can find the very best books.
Here's a real-life example of how it works.
The following is from Cheryl Wolverton, an inveterate reader of my own novels who has also written a story or two set in my Sime~Gen universe. Cheryl now participates in the Sime~Gen List discussions and in the e-mail writing workshop I've been doing. She writes:
"BTW...I read an interesting VAMPIRE/Romance...Prince of Darkness (I believe was the name)...by Susan Krinard....When I read it, I e-mailed her and asked her if she'd ever read you! She said YES! Loved the Sime/Gen...her vampire "skims" energy from the victims dreams....the bad vampire (his twin) skims until he kills the person...the good one doesn't. She's a real big s/f romance writer in the romance genre."
Readers of this column will remember that I reviewed Prince of Darkness some while ago with great relish.
Now here's the real kicker. Last night, I got a post via the Sime~Gen List -- Cheryl Wolverton has made her first sale -- a novel -- a romance novel! And -- conflict of interest warnings flying -- I'll probably review it if it fits into that month's column -- but not if it doesn't. I expect it'll be good in any case -- and it will be out in late '97. And the publisher wants another book from her -- which she hasn't written yet.
As she becomes a public figure, Cheryl will confront a number of new identity questions. Share that journey with her through her novels and you might learn something that you can use when your Guardian asks one of those trick questions.
Meanwhile, from the novels listed above, you might find that the best answer to "Who are you?" could be, "That was poorly phrased. Would you care to try again?" Or perhaps the answer lies not within yourself or your life, but within the people (human or not; fictional or non-fictional) with whom you associate -- by choice or otherwise. Perhaps your Guardian just wants to see if you've been paying attention to those around you.
Honorable Mention this month goes to The Knowledge of Water by Sarah Smith. This is a novel of the darker side the psyche, relatively mundane fare for readers of this column's novels -- yet possibly worth looking at. It's not about magick except insofar as it's about power, greed and fear. Still, I suspect this novel's view of reality dovetails with the idea that maybe there are some people in this world who don't have an identity. Such a lack can eat you up inside if it has never occurred to you that maybe you don't need an identity to do this part of your karmic path and that's why you lack it. Or possibly when you lived some lives in the Orient you worked hard to shuck your personal identity and that's why you don't have one now. The characters in this novel seem determined to start the karmic path over again from scratch.
Send books for review in this column to: Jacqueline Lichtenberg, POB 290, Monsey, N.Y. 10952
Until I get the direct links installed here, you can find these titles by using copy/paste (in MSIE use right mouse button to get the copy/paste menue to work inside text boxes) to insert them in the search slot below -- then click Book Search and you will find the page where you can discover more about that book, or even order it if you want to. To find books by Jacqueline Lichtenberg, such as the new Biblical Tarot series, search "Jacqueline Lichtenberg" below.
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Reviewed by Jacqueline Lichtenberg