Jan. 26th, 2017

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 ‚ÄčI forget if I ever reviewed the first novella in the series, but Bujold has three novellas total in the "Penric and Desdemona" series now.  I finished reading "Penric and the Shaman" recently, and I gotta say how much I like this series. I love the way Bujold portrays the gods in the Five Gods setting, because they are a real power in the stories. They are, at various times and some times simultaneously, awe-inspiring, benevolent, utterly terrifying, subtle, and overwhelming in power. The characters in the setting pray to the gods, and sometimes their prayers are answered, and usually this is both terrifying and to their benefit. It feels very much in the nature of divinity. One of the running jokes of the setting has characters thinking hard about whether or not they actually want to pray.  "Do I want divine intervention here?  I know what divine intervention looks like."  There's a delightfully alien feel to it.
 
This is especially in evidence in "Penric and the Shaman", which is one of those stories when the gods are clearly working hard to bring people together to do what needs to be done, whether they want to or think they can or not.  It's also one of those stories where all the characters have good reasons for what they're doing and why they're doing it, which I always appreciate.
 
I enjoyed "Penric's Mission", too, which had more about their form of sorcery and fewer miracles. I'm kind of annoyed at this one, however because it didn't really resolve at the end.  It wasn't a cliffhanger, but it left the characters in an uncertain position with no clear indication of how they'd end up after it. 
 
Still, I have come to adore both Penric and Desdemona. One of the things I really like about the three novellas is that Bujold has let a lot of time pass between each one: Penric is 19 or 20 during the first, then mid-twenties for the second, and about thirty during the third.  The reader gets glimpses of what he's been doing between stories, and you can see the way the relationship between Penric and Desdemona has changed and deepened over time, and the way that Penric continues to mature. I'll give the series as a whole an 8.5. Definitely recommend, and I'm looking forward to the fourth one.  Bujold's released all three in the last 18 months, so I'm hopeful it won't be a long wait for the next.
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"You're so nice
You're not good you're not bad you're just nice
I'm not good I'm not bad I'm just right
I'm the witch
You're the world."
-- the Witch, from the musical "Into the Woods"

This stanza comes while the giant's wife is on a rampage through the town in "Into the Woods". She is hunting for Jack, who killed her husband. The witch wants to give Jack to her so she'll leave the rest of them alone. The townspeople refuse.

It's a powerful stanza, made more powerful by being delivered by the very talented Bernadette Peters. I first heard it in 1991; it is the first time I clearly remember hearing niceness disparaged.

"Nice" is not "doing the right thing". "Nice" is being pleasant and agreeable toward the people who are around you. Sacrificing your neighbor to the giantess is not nice, even if he did respond to her husband's threat to kill him by robbing her house and killing her husband.

On the other hand, is it the right thing to do, either?

Since then, decrying "niceness" has felt like a thinkpiece staple. Nice is getting along with people even when they're wrong. Nice is caving to peer pressure. Nice lacks self-confidence. Nice is for children. "Nice guys" aren't nice at all, they're entitled and manipulative. Nice is weak. "Nice", as a label, is an insult.

Nice is feminine-coded.

"Girls are made of sugar and spice and everything nice".

I aspire to kindness. "Kind" is not the same as "nice". Kindness is warmth, friendship, and compassion. Nice is pleasant and agreeable. Nice is Kindness's maligned younger cousin, accused of superficiality and fakery. Kindness can be cruel, but niceness never can.

I have long regarded this as an important distinction. When I talk about my aspirations, I am careful to say "kind" and not "nice". But as I get older, the distinction feels increasingly like splitting hairs.

The truth is, I don't think it is a kindness to tell a young artist "it's too hard to make a living in art, you're not that good and probably never will be, just focus on getting a regular job instead." It is not kindness to give unsolicited criticism to an author of their work, no matter how weak it is or how much I dislike it. Perhaps the former would be happier if they had a steady job and no dreams. Perhaps the latter would write better books with my advice.

Perhaps it's not my call to make.

I write fantasy novels and I can spin a million hypotheticals where the "right thing" is cruel or harsh or alienating. But in my actual life, interacting with actual people, I am hard pressed to think of a time where a situation was improved because someone decided to be mean. It's happened, I'm sure. I just don't remember it.

I do remember that one woman I worked with as a teaching assistant, who told me that all my co-workers hated me and wanted me to stop talking to them because I was clueless and rude, but they wouldn't tell me so because it wasn't "nice".

I am sure she thought she was doing the right thing.

I have many regrets in my life, but "I was too nice" has never been one of them. This is no doubt in part because niceness has never come easily to me. I don't mean to deride anyone who feels that they need to be less nice because people take advantage of them. I'm not going to say you're wrong if you think you have to take a stand against evil even if that means being unkind to some people doing the wrong thing. You do what you have to do. 

I just think I'm done with making fun of niceness. Being pleasant and agreeable is hard work, too, and it makes the lives of the people around one a little bit better. I'm not going to sneer at that as "merely nice". The pleasant, agreeable, nice people of the world are not the ones making it a worse place to live. Quite the opposite, really.
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Lyn reminded me the Month of Letters, where participants send a letter every day the post runs in February, is a thing. I don't know if I'll make a point to send a letter every day in February. But if you ask for a letter, I'll send you one! And I will write back anyone who writes me*.

* Barring unexpected inundation. Last time I did this I only had a few requests, though, so I doubt that'll be a problem.

If you'd like a letter, leave a comment (comments are screened) with your address, or send it through my inbox on DW/LJ, or email (my gmail addy is ladyrowyn) or whatever.

You may also specify if you'd like an in-character letter from one of my characters (and which one! Yes, Anthser will write letters. Greatcats have clawtip pens for that.)

Oh, and Lyn, Cal and Rion and I are talking about doing the letter game, where you write in-character letters to each other and theoretically develop some kind of plot. If you want to do one of those, I'm happy to do so. If you want my address, email me. :)

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