9, 2012: This story was recently reviewed (I’m writing this on October 9th, 2012 if you need a definition of
"recent") and given 2 stars despite the reviewer pointing out that it was "fairly strongly written" and
"brilliantly clear" in its description of setting. To my own understanding of the five star system in place at WFG,
"brilliantly clear" "strong writing" gets you three star and better, so a two star "tough slog"
immediately got my attention as cognitive dissonance.
In other words, it didn’t make sense.
I decided to investigate the
discrepancy and read the story for myself.
"Kingsnake" is very well written. Other than a few typographical errors
here and there, it has grammar and structure. The descriptions are indeed brilliantly clear, giving you a strong sense of
surroundings, buildings, atmosphere and people. It’s a very slow, detailed work—most web-fiction is fast-paced
and action-oriented, whereas "Kingsnake" is more like an actual print novel that you have to sit with and absorb.
However, that means it becomes a very immersive experience if you invest the time.
The plot mainly follows Richard Carter, a small-town
deputy in the Missouri Ozarks. Once upon a time he was working towards being in the FBI but events previous to "Kingsnake"
indicate he shot his dream in the foot by ending the life of a serial killer and ending his chance at the bigtime. Backwoods
deputy is the best he can do. (There are hints of previous stories, and the author’s site indicates that there’s
a series—luckily, you don’t need to read the others to enjoy "Kingsnake" as it stands on its own two
Richard might start out as a stock character—hard-working family man, spends too much time thinking about his cop job—but
with so many immersive details and scenes between him and his family, his friends, his day-to-day life and thoughts, you get
to know Richard as a well-rounded person. He struggles with balancing work and home, the ethics of his job, the way it blurs
the edges of relationships and the life and death struggle that cops wrestle with but try not to think about to function.
The other characters
are similar—the longer you’re around them, the more they seem like living, breathing people, as fully realized
as the setting they’re living in. This is a story rooted in Bible Belt Missouri, and the kinds of people who live in
its rougher environs. There are sloppy, idiotic jerks who are involved in the areas Meth labs and drug deals, there are redneck
cops who don’t know much, and there are intelligent investigators who try to work alongside them. It’s a mixed
bag, just like real life, and the author tries to depict all of them honestly.
So, the more I read the more I wanted to read,
which made the other review that much harder to understand. This was no "tough slog," it was an easy, absorbing
experience. Looking at that review, it talks about the depiction of women in the story as the reviewer’s main issue.
They saw oppressive sexism at work, with men as active and women as passive in traditional roles.
Their review indicates further
that they only read a third of the story. I would suggest that they go on to read the entire thing with an eye on Richard’s
wife, Jill, who comes across as the most intelligent character in the story, and certainly one of the best-educated. She herself
is a teacher, which yeah might be considered feminine and nurturing in comparison to a cop dealing with serial killers, but
it’s also one of the noblest professions on earth and one I once aspired to, in my younger days. I have plenty of male
and female friends in the educational field, and I don’t think anyone I know would be insulted seeing a woman in that
role in fiction. Especially when Jill and Richard’s relationship is shown as a clear balance, both of them presenting
their needs in rational ways in fair discussions.
Jill worries that Richard spends too much time at work and is missing out on their
baby daughter, Mirabelle—but she doesn’t hesitate to voice that concern and tell him to try harder. She also compromises
when he’s involved in high-profile cases, realizing that it’s hard to walk away when there’s a killer around.
In the middle of the novel she becomes an active help to Richard’s case, discussing details with him and acting as a
sounding board. They are life-partners, and there’s nothing oppressive in that depiction. Richard, the protagonist,
holds up his wife and daughter (and women in general) as superior creatures to men.
Now that depiction might sound sexist in an old-fashioned,
chivalrous way—but I would argue it’s important to the story. The author has created a very realistic "fictional
community" but it’s based on their experience of the Ozarks. To use a writer’s alchemy to depict that reality
in fiction means being true to its character and values. Richard is in a way an old-fashioned character in a modern setting,
but that’s quite likely in rural Bible Belt Missouri, where population and traditions aren’t as fluid as modern
cities. My own experience of rural Canada is similar, like it or not things get more conservative away from urban centres—but
there are always exceptions in a bell curve, and those are shown in life and in this story by more liberal characters.
So, because there
are multiple types of characters depicted, with a varying range of agency, importance and independence, I would say the author
is trying to be realistic about how there are different types of relationships—but there is a major difference between
the characters who are valued and the ones who are depicted negatively. The stable, intelligent, educated partnerships are
balanced and show mutual valuation—it’s clear who you’re supposed to cheer for.
Would it sit better if the
story was set in the 1960s? Probably—but it’s still true for its setting, and the author realizes it with an honest
eye. The character of Jill and her young teacher friend Janice show outspoken, intelligent and brave characters. However,
they also face some situations where they need help from others—because a Xena, Nikita, or Buffy wouldn’t exist
in the setting. People live in this community because they have to—for Richard, it’s his only chance at police
work. For the meth-heads, it’s the bottom rung in their ladder of life. An exceptional, hard working person would move
on to greener pastures, not toil in obscurity.
The depiction also is a key structural part of the symbolism of the story. One of
the other police investigators compares their job to taking care of a garden. Adam and Eve references pop up at one point
and so it becomes a main symbol of the story’s plot—the police in the person of Richard are there to prevent weeds
and dangerous animals from damaging the garden of their community. The Kingsnake is the name given to the serial killer, as
a criminal killing criminals, because the kingsnake eats other snakes. Snakes in the Garden directly reference Genesis in
the Bible—Richard is protecting his innocents (his family and friends) from those who would harm them. He has an earthly
duty to enforce the law, but while that’s his job in his life, in the story’s symbolism he is acting to protect
his Eve and their child and community from corruption, crime and violence.
That’s his job as a cop—and his role as the protagonist.
With a different writer in a different setting it could have been woman—but given the depiction of Jill in particular,
and the structure of this novel, I don’t see a problem with this particular story having a male protagonist fulfilling
a traditional role. We can’t have babies, but we can protect our families. Claiming that role and depicting it well
doesn’t denigrate anyone – especially when it’s in celebration of those who do have children and raise them.
Motherhood might be traditional, but that doesn’t make it oppressive when the person who is a mother is a balanced partner
with the husband, even if they’re not the main focus of the story. Jill, and other characters, have the choice of career
or family, or both—no one is putting them in a corner.
In other reviews I identify my bias when something about the story doesn’t
appeal to me—for instance, derivative characters like vampires which are culturally super-saturated. I subtract one
star based on my bias while letting everyone know by doing so that they can add that star back if they love vampires. Then
I judge the story on its merits—technique, symbolism, theme, style, etc. This story is a police procedural, and tons
of those exist. However, it’s very capably written and the characters become more individualized the longer you read.
I think I’ve solved the mystery and it’s not a big deal—so maybe this isn’t a 5 star story.
not a two star story and it’s not sexist. It might depict some sexist characters, but it also depicts characters that
value the opposite sex and are trying to make a safer world for them to live in. In this setting, characters help each other
because the good ones are community that is interdependent—Richard visits a neighbour who is bullying Janice because
he didn’t get the message when she stood up for herself. When Richard can’t handle it alone his friend Ron comes
along—needing help isn’t weakness or oppression, it’s recognizing no one is an island to themselves and
everyone has different skills to offer.
In Richard’s case, some of his relationship is traditional between himself and
his wife, Jill. She knows more about child-rearing and asserts her skills in raising their daughter—but Richard acknowledges
her skills and values them the same way he acknowledges her greater knowledge of English Literature. The balance and affection
between them is very modern—even if the plot itself could very well be a knight facing dragons to protect his castle.
The devil is in the details, and in this case the details show a lot of respect, symbolism, talent and sophistication.
I think a two
star rating is an over-reaction when the entire novel hasn’t been read, and I think the charge of sexism is a bit controversial
when someone isn’t familiar with a writer’s entire bibliography of work, nor their personal life. There are enough
horrible stories out there which can be judged as tough slogs that it seems unfair to have a knee-jerk reaction and saddle
a well-written piece with a two star rating that doesn’t come close to reality.
It takes examining the entire picture, which is
one of the themes of the novel in Richard’s job as a deputy, and it applies to the story and life as a whole.