Friday, December 9, 2011

Unusual IQ

Writing smart people is easy - just give them knowledge everyone else has to look up or figure out. But to write someone who's less smart than average, without making them TSTL or even just too slow to be interesting? That takes real skill.

Which brings us to...

The Desert of Souls by Howard Andrew Jones

Genre fantasy

How it starts Master Jaffar's parrot is dead. He summons the captain of his guard, Asim, and tells him the bird might have been poisoned. Not knowing what else to do, Asim examines the dead bird to much mockery by the court poet.

General premise After hearing disturbing predictions from a fortune teller, Captain Asim, Scholar Dabir, and their master, Jaffar, rescue a man from armed pursuers. He dies midway through his warning of danger, leaving them with a dangerous artifact that's soon stolen from them. Jaffar sends Asim and Dabir to recover the treasure, and they find themselves embroiled in the peril and black magic of ambitious enemies.

Page 63 quote

"I cannot say much of the journey's first night, for I spent much of it hunched over the boat's side, heaving, and the rest of it lying under the boat's awning wondering when next I might. Between the wondering and the doing I groaned occasionally and for the first time in my life looked back fondly upon the time I was knocked unconscious from a blow to the helm and lay stunned in the dirt of the practice yard.

 ....I was awakened not by the sun....but by the twang of an oud. I opened my eyes a crack to find the cursed poet sitting beside me, an instrument to hand. His long wisp of a beard quivered as he grinned at me. I growled at him to go away, but instead he sang, plucking at the strings all the while."

Unusual IQ

As with all good books, this one does so many thing well - recreating 8th century Baghdad and the rich feel of Shaharazad's One Thousand and One Nights, the impressive characterization, and the bond of many years of friendship between Asim and Dabir. And Sabirah, Jaffar's brilliant young niece, navigating a world that restricts her freedom, but managing to get educated and have adventures anyway. Female characters by male fantasy writers are very hit or miss, but Jones did a great job with Sabirah.

I highlight Asim's less-than-average IQ because it's done so smartly. It's hard to explain. He's strong and apparently handsome, definitely street-smart enough to protect his master and himself. But he's surrounded by really sharp people, many of them scholars and intellectuals, and he's just slow enough that sometimes when he trusts his judgment above theirs, things go terribly, terribly wrong, and then we get to watch them work their way out of it, and it's just awesome. I also love how he always manages to talk things around in his own mind, so that instead of being the cause of their current dilemma, he's actually done everyone a favor.

I'm not the type to beat up on pseudo-medieval-European fantasy, because when it's done well it makes me so, so happy, but fantasy like this, set in the Middle East with its varying cultures and mythologies and history...well. We need more books like this. And those set in cultures drawn from South America, Africa, and Asia, too.

Other books with protagonists who are different from their peers, IQ-wise:

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon
Genre: General fiction

Christopher has Asperger's syndrome. He knows all the countries of the world and their capital cities and every prime number up to 7057, but he can't read people's expressions. He finds his neighbor's poodle in the yard with a pitchfork sticking out of its side, and after being accused of the murder, decides to find out who did it. In doing so, he learns other things - like the truth about his mother's death.

This book is chock-full of great moments and memorable quotes. Like on Page 3, when he finds the dog:

"I like dogs. You always know what a dog is thinking. It has four moods. Happy, sad, cross and concentrating. Also, dogs are faithful and they do not tell lies because they cannot talk."

Or on Page 24, when he's talking to Mr. Jeavons, the school psychologist:

"Mr. Jeavons said that I was a very clever boy.

I said that I wasn't clever. I was just noticing how things were, and that wasn't clever. That was just being observant. Being clever was when you looked at how things were and used the evidence to work out something new. Like the universe expanding, or who committed a murder. Or if you see someone's name and you give each letter a value from 1 to 26 (a=1, b=2, etc.) and you add the number up in your head and find that it makes a prime number, like Jesus Christ (151), or Scooby-Doo (113), or Sherlock Holmes (163), or Doctor Watson (167).

Mr. Jeavons asked me whether this made me feel safe, having things always in a nice order, and I said it did. Then he asked if I didn't like things changing. And I said I wouldn't mind things changing if I became an astronaut, for example, which is one of the biggest changes you can imagine, apart from becoming a girl or dying."

Christopher thinks of everything in terms of numbers or logic or how definitions differ from the way people use words. The story is crafted so well that we immediately know how the people around him feel and what they think, even though he doesn't. I've read some award-winning books that left me feeling like someone stuck two dictionaries in a blender and presented us with the results. But this book was just...brilliant.

Dragon Bones by Patricia Briggs
Genre: fantasy

Ward is a little different from the others I've talked about here. He's spent his life pretending to be less intelligent than he is, so his father won't accuse him of treachery and kill him. When his father dies and he becomes ruler, he learns the family secret about the power available to him from the ghost that isn't a ghost. But Ward's also played an idiot for so long that he's now a target for nobles who think he's incapable of ruling.

The Lion of Senet by Jennifer Fallon
Genre: fantasy

A brilliant mathematician calculated when the second sun would disappear, vital information for keeping the religious establishment in power. In the midst of war, he vanished without telling anyone when the Age of Darkness would begin. But High Priestess Belagren has found another gifted mathematician in seventeen-year-old Dirk Provin, and even though his mother is a political dissident who hates the High Priestess and everything she represents, Belagren's determined to have him.

This is probably my favorite fantasy of all time. It influenced my tastes so strongly that I no longer feel magic is a necessary element in fantasy, while I'm less likely to pick up a fantasy novel if it doesn't contain intrigue at high levels (politics or religion).

Dirk is just fascinating. If I recall correctly, Jennifer Fallon's premise for him was "How many bad things can a character do and still be sympathetic?" That surprised me, because even though he's thinking ten times faster than everyone around him, there's obvious logic in all his decisions and I was rooting for him the whole time. Dirk is my favorite male character under 30.

Other books with atypical-IQ protagonists?

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