Good Omens – Book Review

Content Warning: Racism, Homomisia

I have a fondness for a certain character type that is man, or mannish, and has black-feathered wings (hence my obsession with Devil Jin from the Tekken franchise) and given my fondness for David Tennant as well, seeing an image of him with black-feathered wings portraying a snake-eyed demon as promotional material for a Good Omens series premiering next year on Amazon piqued my interest.

The person who originally tweeted the image that passed along my TL and was then quote-tweeted by me expressed surprise at my not having read the book. Good Omens is a novel by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. I have read two novels by Neil Gaiman: Stardust, because I liked the movie, and American Gods because at least one, though perhaps more, of my friends seemed to really like it. I used to follow Neil Gaiman on both Tumblr and Twitter and enjoyed his tweets and posts. I don’t want to get into why I stopped following him because I also re-follow people and there can be multiple reasons, not all of which I’d remember.

Anyway, back to the books: I didn’t exactly hate these books, but Stardust falls into one of the few cases where I would say the movie was better than the book, because it was kind of bland in comparison, and American Gods was a little boring and took me a long time to finish, so after that, I haven’t really been in any hurry to read more from Neil Gaiman. I have been meaning to read Terry Pratchett eventually, so I guess I started here with Good Omens.

If you are unfamiliar with the premise, it’s about a cast of characters preparing for the end of the world, including an angel and demon who like the world well enough to not see it end. Other characters include witches, witchfinders, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, some kids, and more. Thankfully, there is a cast list near the beginning that was a helpful reference. Segments jump from place to place, character to character, so one can easily be lost when starting out on a first read.

Most of the Good Omens novel wasn’t boring though there was a part with witchfinders I found dull enough to take a break from reading and going back to coloring my web comic page before getting back to the story. It did break away from the characters I was more interested in, Aziraphale and Crowley (mainly Crowley), more than I would have liked.

This book was published in 1990, but racism should be called out in any age, so as a non-black light-skinned Mexican Native person trying to understand and do better in the ongoing, long fight against oppression in many forms, I’m going to point out some excerpts that sent alarms off in my head.

Most of the members of the convent were old-fashioned Satanists, like their grandparents and parents before them. They’d been brought up to it, and weren’t, when you got right down to it, particularly evil. Human beings mostly aren’t. They just get carried away by new ideas, dressing up in jackboots and shooting people, or dressing up in white sheets and lynching people, or dressing up in tie-dye jeans and playing guitars at people. Offer people a new creed with a costume and their hearts and minds will follow.

See, this book is supposed to be funny, and so the above is supposed to be a joke but “jackboots,” to me at least, is intended to conjure up images of Nazis who killed millions of people, very specifically Jewish people and “lynching” is literally hanging Black people to kill them because they stepped out of line. Lynchings still go on in the U.S. today. For an example I recall in the past several years, read the story about Lennon Lacy. I am pointing out the severity of this violence because while there is some research on the relevance of the fashion to these systematic killings, the specificity of their purpose, the intended power dynamic of outright genocide, is extremely important and should not be glossed over for a joke. Also, I’d say those people can be called really evil quite obviously. It’s a frightening time to see how many really evil people we all live with every day.

Here’s another excerpt that, intended to be funny or serious, certainly leaves me uncomfortable and questioning its purpose.

As soon as the car had stopped he had the back door open and was bowing like an aged retainer welcoming the young massa back to the old plantation.

These words call to the time of chattel slavery, which was an extremely violent atrocity whose effects are still felt today and so calling it to in this fashion as a simile for opening a door feels tremendously inappropriate.

One of the characters, Shadwell, is very clearly racist, even using the word “darkie” at some point with special expressed suspicion toward a Mr. Rajit while the narrative then brushes off this racism as tolerated because Shadwell hates everybody. I don’t think I’ve outright pointed out that both Gaiman and Pratchett are/were White, so I’ll do that now because I think these examples of diversion to the true power investment and dynamic of whiteness toward anti-blackness are a noteworthy and significant problem.

Now, for another obviously racist character is Madame Tracey, which is a real shame because I liked her aside from this point, but it’s kind of a big, flashing, awful, point. She does a seance as part of her services and during a major plot point, the reader learns the following in between her using a stereotypical “how” talking to her clients:

She had always understood that Red Indian spirit guides were an essential prop, and she rather liked the name.

The name referenced above is “Geronimo”. Soon follows a mention of another character figuring out how she doesn’t know who he was and that character not having the heart to tell her. I will try now to have the heart to tell any reader that if you find yourself in a position to put one of your characters saying and doing racist things without confronting that, challenging it, and working to be better, don’t.

I didn’t really care for the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which really just made me want to re-watch that X-Men animated series, the one from the 90s, with the early Apocalypse episodes that had the Four Horsemen where Angel becomes Archangel (Death). It started about Rogue wanting to give up her powers and deciding to keep them. I liked those episodes, and I think perhaps those four will always be THE Four in my heart, not that War, Pestilence, and Famine were particularly interesting or developed in those X-Men episodes, they weren’t, it’s just the effect of a first impression and nostalgia. Maybe the colors too. Here is a screenshot of them from the episode Come the Apocalypse in season 1, for reference:

The character Crowley almost seems written for David Tennant, as I could easily picture him delivering much of the dialogue. I look forward to seeing at least that if nothing else when the series premieres in Amazon. If I do watch it, it really will be because of him and hopefully the rest will be done well enough to keep me interested. My other concern is that it might be gross. I do not like gross, and this story definitely has some gross parts. I don’t think I’ve watched an original Amazon series yet, but I have watched all of Jessica Jones on Netflix, which also featured David Tennant and part of why I watched that too. In my Jessica Jones review, I mentioned that it got really violent and gross, more than I could stand really, in the later part of the season but by then I was so invested, I finished it anyway.

Some kind of content or trigger warning would have been nice. I was really taken off guard by the extremely casual use of having a child using the anti-gay slur that rhymes with “maggot” and then later a guard taking pleasure at the thought of burning several such people. That particular word has always offended me a great deal. People really do die from this oppression in brutal ways. It hurts.

Good Omens was moderately entertaining, and I’ll be glad to have a reference if I watch the Amazon series. I would recommend it if you think it will have specifically something of interest to you, such as the authorial style of Neil Gaiman or Terry Pratchett or a broad cast for an end of the world, or religion-based fantasy. Crowley’s wings weren’t around or described much though, I’ll admit.

The Fifth Season – Book Review

The below post was originally written in November 2016 for my Tumblr and has been copied and back-dated here to match that.

Spoiler warning: I will talk about really big and important spoilers in this book.

This book was so interesting. I read it because it won a Hugo award and some of the writers I follow on Twitter said it was really good when that happened. Plus, it was on sale a few weeks ago. Anyway, it starts by inviting the reader to begin with the end of the world, the world being a place called the Stillness. One of the book’s characters causes something terrible to happen, intentionally destroying a city in the process. That’s only the beginning consequence though, compared to happen to the rest of the Stillness and not meaning much to you, right away, in light of a tragic event happening in your life at this time too.

Yes, that’s right: you are a character in the book. You have whole chapters dedicated to what you’re going through, telling you what you’re doing and how you feel, where you’re going and your purpose in that trek: the search for your daughter who might still be alive with the husband who killed your three-year-old son. Your chapters are between those about Damaya and Syenite. You know these two though the reader doesn’t know you know them at first. You know them because they were you at earlier points in your life, and those things they went through culminate into what you’re experiencing at this stage of your life.

Now we’re going to switch, reader, so that so you are not the second-person character in the book, Essun, but back to being my reader. Essun is an orogene, and it took a long while for me to check and realize the book had a glossary to state more explicitly what that means. Orogenes use orogeny. Orogeny is the “ability to manipulate thermal, kinetic, and related forms of orogeny to address seismic events.” Orogenes are dangerous and oppressed. They are used and denied human status with much effort into controlling them. Stills, people without orogeny, outnumber and fear them, sometimes killing them in their prejudice or calling on others to rein them in and take them somewhere else.

Instead of the more common “Mother Earth” reference of our own world, this one has “Father Earth,” and “evil earth” is a phrase used to exclaim or express frustration. The people still swear with a word like “fuck,” but they do so along with “rust.” In the chapter that Damaya meets her Guardian, Schaffa, he tells her, “You’re a gift of the Earth – but Father Earth hates us, never forget, and his gifts are neither safe nor free.” This earth in the Stillness is a dangerous place where people fight to survive, based on their teachings from stonelore, telling them how to manage until the next Fifth Season. On and on it goes, manipulating the orogenes all the while.

Like many other media items I review for this blog, The Fifth Season contains some ableism regarding mental health, including a casual use of “crazy,” as Essun thinks and decides things, using the word as a descriptor. On a more serious level, Essun considers that a man, her husband, Jija, that killed his own child, might not fit the label of “sane” and that in her trauma of not thinking for two days, she might not either. Trauma can affect a person’s mental health, such as PTSD, so her acknowledging it has some merit, but it still might fall into the trap that “crazy” equals “bad.” I’m conflicted and uncertain because I know some people on Twitter I follow and respect use “crazy” for themselves in a way to reclaim it. The part relating to Jija is more overt in being a problem.

In March earlier this year, a 4-year-old girl named Leiliana Wright died in Grand Prairie, Texas. She was killed due to abuse from her mother and mother’s boyfriend. She is not the only abused child to die in Texas, and right now, the state I live in is in a crisis where CPS is underfunded. Children are hurt or dying. I bring this information up because I want to point out the harsh and upsetting truth that child abuse is real and common enough for the number in Texas to reach into the thousands. It shouldn’t be, but it is. Essun’s urge to question Jija’s sanity stems from the wrong belief that we can lay blame on a person’s mental health condition instead of the actions they committed and the sum of all the system in place of her world amounting him dehumanizing his own children the instant he learns they are orogenes. Oppression is deliberate and in a system perpetuating the belief that orogenes are dangerous, deadly non-human beings, killing one, even if that one is a person’s child, is in fact, the system at play, working as intended. It is morally wrong, and the immoral action is not the product of mental illness. Even if it were, people commit immoral actions without having mental illness all the time. In the end, sane or not, Jija still killed his son.

The novel explores systemic oppression at length, from questioning the history that’s been erased to showing how orogenes are treated by others, to how Essun, throughout different periods of her life, has felt, trapped by it. For instance, in the chapter where the reader is introduced to Syenite, she must meet with Alabaster, the highest-ranked, ten-ringed orogene. Each chapter concludes with some written work as part of the world-building, such as a proverb or part of the stonelore rules. The chapter introducing Syenite and Alabaster ends with a blurb about telling “them,” presumably referring to orogenes, they can be great someday, that they must be perfect to be respected on the same level as everyone else, making them bend over backwards for what they can never achieve.

The book does not offer a resolution to Essun’s driving purpose of trying to find her daughter and instead has her stop for a bit in one place and meet up with the very man who set the whole season in motion at the book’s beginning. To be honest, I didn’t even realize that, fully realize it, until I was trying to decide if I would buy the sequel or not. I did buy that, by the way, though I don’t think I’ll be reviewing it. This book was good, so I recommend it, assuming you have an interest in the science fiction and fantasy genre and its sequel.

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