My department asked me…

My department asked me for a faculty activity report, and as part of it, I was supposed to list recent publications, including reviews of any books. That made me curious as to whether anyone had reviewed "Talking to Elephants," which I published in Abyss & Apex last year. And lo and behold, someone did. Spoilers follow, both in the review and my commentary, from this Locus Review by Lois Tilton. If you haven't read the story yet, it's free, and pretty short, and then the rest of this entry will actually make sense.

"There is war in a fantasy version of Sri Lanka, where the large royal family controls magic and the peasant rebels have guns. Ezi is a useless prince, whose only power is speaking to animals who wont agree to fight for them. He also writes poetry and suffers from naive delusions about making peace with the enemy. But drastic events change everything.

This is a political work, if only because it evokes comparison to current events. As such, it can not be seen as simply a childrens fairytale about a young prince earning his crown. Thus it is unsatisfying to see the events from only a single point of view, in which the king is good and kind and wise and the rebels are the most clichd of terrorists. And the elephants, whom everyone knows to be wise, are gravely deluded."

So here's the thing -- I'm the author, and I don't understand this review. Is Lois saying that the story fails because we only see events from the prince's viewpoint? That's sort of an interesting claim, although I'd argue that the prince is pretty clearly an unreliable narrator, and as such, his viewpoint holds a multitude of possibilities, depending on how you read what's happening around him, filtered through his perception. Did the reviewer just miss that option?

Or, is she warning the reader to be wary of taking the prince's viewpoint at face value? That would be a more helpful reading, I think, but based on her phrasing, I don't think that's actually what she was saying. Is it?

And is she actually saying flat out that the pacifist message of the elephants is clearly wrong? And if so, wrong in her viewpoint, as a reader, responding to the story's perceived argument, or, conversely, wrong based on her interpretation of what the author / story intended? I can't tell.

Normally I think it's a bad idea for authors to engage with their reviewers -- or at least a dangerous idea. But I found this review confusing. Maybe I'm too close to my story.

Also, I wonder how many of my readers on this story read it 'straight', as it were -- as a sort of triumphant, traditional ending. Whereas what I intended was something rather more grim and even cynical. For me, this is at least in part the story of a fall from innocence, into the temptations of power. But I'm not sure I actually succeeded in getting that across...especially considering the tone of this other brief review by Sam Tomaino:

"The issue begins with young Prince Ezi, "Talking to Elephants" in the story by Mary Anne Mohanraj. He tries to convince them to help his country against the invading Hansithi. He befriends his pretty cousin, Madhuri, who has power over fire and water. Things work out in a surprising way in this delightful fantasy."

Delightful? Really?

8 thoughts on “My department asked me…”

  1. Well, you know what I think about that story. The “delight” I experienced was not sugar-and-rainbows delight but OMG-I-see-what-you-did-there. The barb is subtle. If you’ve made up your mind that you’re reading unreconstructed fantasy (as opposed to reconstructionist fantasy, which is how I think of it), it would be easy to miss it — maybe gloss over it as a weakening of the tone and not the shift of key that it is.

  2. I read it pretty straight, and I consider myself a fairly sophisticated reader. The blacks and whites of the story are pretty clearly drawn; I didn’t draw much nuance in them from the telling. The blowing-up is horrific, but ta da! Ezi suddenly uses big magical powers that he’d never shown he had before that to save the day from complete ruin! Heavens forfend that the girl cousin with her own considerable powers actually do something with them. I’m a bit allergic to those last two things 🙂 .

  3. My interpretation of Lois Tilton’s comments is she is aware of you being Srilankan and wanted to readers to be wary of painting the royal family aka possible Singhalese as “good” and “just” and the terrorists aka the Tamils as being bad with real no real reason for a war. She took your story in context of your background and when you read it does come across as such only she thinks you were Singhalese instead of Tamil.

  4. There are two political points of view in the story, the king and the elephants, but I didn’t find the other point of view that I (and maybe Lois Tilton) wanted: Why do the rebels say that Amithnal is the rightful king?

  5. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    Hm. Well, clearly what I intended didn’t come across to everyone, which is my own failure. But I did mean the rebel point of view to be clearly implied, if never explicitly stated. Sigh.

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