Rule-Breaking

A while ago I was reading Sappho’s Leap, and I really tried to stick with it, but I just couldn’t.  It wasn’t even that the book was bad or anything, but I just reached a point where I felt that it had broken a contract with me and I couldn’t keep going.

When you read a book, you generally know relatively on what the “rules” of its world are. Wizards are allowed to show up and solve problems in Harry Potter, but if one shows up in 2001: A Space Odyssey, that’s it, the rules of the universe have been broken, and the story loses a lot of its satisfaction.  It’s like playing a game of chess against a computer; it doesn’t feel right unless you win according to the rules.  You could unplug the computer and walk away victorious by default, but that’s leaving the system in which you had willingly agreed to compete.  For me, it’s similar for books.  I enter the new world, and I and the book have a contract, and part of that is that certain rules need to be followed by both of us.  I can’t finish the book by just reading the first and last pages, and the book needs to limit its options in certain ways.  I’m not saying that it can’t be unexpected, but you can’t end The Maltese Falcon with Sam Spade revealing his time machine, with which they all go back in time and steal the original falcon right after it was made.

And that’s what I felt happened with Sappho’s Leap.  It’s presented as historical.  Or at least, that’s how I understood it while reading.  It’s reasonably historically accurate, especially regarding the details of Sappho’s life, and it taught me a lot about her before I stopped reading.  It had a bit of a smear against Spartan women, but most people get Sparta incorrect, so that’s not a deal-breaker or anything.  I guess I should have been wary when gods and goddesses started talking in little sections throughout the book, but since these sections were cut off from everything else and written as a script, rather than prose, (i.e. Character: Sentence) it didn’t really intrude.

But then she meets Amazons, who have winged horses, whose wing size apparently decreases the more generations they’re removed from the original winged ancestor, and I don’t even know.  If mythological creatures are going to show up in what is otherwise historical fiction, I need some warning.  The Amazons, had they been alone, I could have lived with.  I would have liked them properly placed, but, you know, populations migrate.  It could easily have provided a bit of mystery, a bit of the unknown in a tale that happened millennia ago, but if they’re also going to have magical flying horses, and still remain completely unmentioned by the historical record, it just breaks things for me.

Had the story been more fantastic, like Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin, then something like that might have passed, but even then, I think there’s just too much history to suddenly have winged horses.  There are so many named historical figures and references to contemporary events that it’s just impossible for me to accept such unrealistic things as divine intervention and mythological beasts, and it just ruined the story for me.

Has anyone else had this sort of problem, where they’re reading a book and suddenly the rules just change too sharply for them to stick with it?

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