Wednesday, June 21, 2017

One Hundred Nights of Hero by Isabel Greenberg

I really do not want to be that guy. One Hundred Nights of Hero is a lovely book, with gorgeous art and compelling words, and it's another great success from the author of The Encyclopedia of Early Earth. It retells the story of Scheherazade in Isabel Greenberg's invented cosmology, putting a feminist spin on the frame story and the tales Hero tells to make it something new and unique.

It's a good book and a strong book and a smart book and a powerful book. And it's not a book about me, which I fully realize.

But nearly every man in it is absolutely horrible and evil. Greenberg doesn't quite say it's because they're men -- and there is one male-female love story in the middle, where the woman is vastly more powerful than the man and (therefore?) their relationship is lovely while it lasts (but still essentially doomed?). There's one other decent man, who we know to be decent because he doesn't rape a princess he could have taken for his own, and instead goes off to never have a wife or true love of any kind for the rest of his life.

So that's two men, neither of whom can find any happiness or lasting love, who are basically good. All other men in One Hundred Nights are horribly, nastily evil: vile scheming husbands, assholish bird-headed gods, controlling fathers, two-faced seducers, autocratic religious slimeballs, and a retinue of toadies with swords who support the status quo with violence.

Again, this is the story Greenberg is telling, and that's entirely her choice. This is a book about women finding love with each other, finding momentary safe places with each other, and telling each other stories -- those stories being primarily about how horrible men are. It's about the power of story -- not to change the world, because Greenberg doesn't seem to believe this world can be changed, but to witness the horrible things in the world and make them clear and apparent to all.

So it's a sad and depressing book. I don't know if it's particularly sad and depressing to read it as a man, and be left out of the only hope and love Greenberg has on offer here, or if would be worse for women, since this is such a horrible world for them top to bottom. It does have gods and supernatural beings, which provide both the original source of the horribleness and the slender possibility of happiness and escape from it.

I should emphasize that there is hope and love on offer. Hero, our storyteller, and the woman she loves, Cherry, have a pure and perfect love that sees them through all obstacles, up to and including their impending doom. Doomed love is traditional, right?

Maybe One Hundred Nights was the necessary corrective to Early Earth, which was very male-dominated -- it had a boy hero who did great deeds and won the girl, but she didn't get her own great deeds or even much of a story. One Hundred Nights is the story of women in that same world, and has as much of a love of storytelling and the power of story to move people as Early Earth did, adding in a stronger central plot that incorporates the thousand-stories structure Greenberg clearly loves while keeping a central unity. As a story, One Hundred Nights is stronger and more mature than Early Earth, but it's less pleasant to read, less fun to explore.

It feels a bit like Tehanu: a female creator looking back at work she did before and finding things she doesn't like lurking in the cracks, so she drags those horrible things out into the light to expose them and condemn them. That may be necessary, and may be what that creator absolutely wanted to do at that time, but it doesn't make for a pleasant time reading.

Greenberg's woodcut-looking art is just as good as in Early Earth -- it looks rough-hewn, as if these stories had to fight their way into existence, and her faces have remarkable mobility and power given their simple design. Her pages are artfully constructed, drawing the eye through bold drawings and extensive text without flagging, and making this long, complex story always clear and compelling.

Early Earth is a horrible place for women. But I wouldn't want to be a man there, either. Maybe a god. It seems to only be tolerable if you get to be a god.

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