Ever had it where you're reading a book and you're really into it, utterly absorbed and fully enthralled, and suddenly crash-bang-slam you're rudely yanked out of the narrative due to an out-of-place allusion, word, or narrative device?
On a whim, I recently began to reread Elvenblood by Andre Norton and Mercedes Lackey, book two of the Halfblood Chronicles. I experienced this jolting displacement 40 pages into the book—better sooner than later, I guess.
Now, Elvenblood by itself is not a great book. The first half is fairly well done, but it soon digs itself into an improbability pit well-seasoned with retconning and lined with plot devices lurking like landmines on every page. Well, all right, if you just read the book, it's not quite that glaringly bad, but the amount of glib worldbuilding and continuity errors is appalling once you take a good look at the details.
But if you just read it through, it's standard fantasy fare, with its good points and its bad points and no real wow-factor. Elves are the ruling race, few in number but cruel and powerful and long-lived, and they have long since enslaved humanity, collaring humans and locking away their mind magic. The offspring of human and elf is forbidden because these so-called "wizard" halfbloods have human mind magic in addition to elf magic and are therefore super powerful; naturally because they are forbidden, you can be sure there are a heck of a lot of them secretly born and spirited away to await future storylines. Oh, and there are shapeshifting magical dragons who don't want the elves to know they exist, fearing that the elves, being cruel bastards with a taste for pretty things, will want to skin every dragon alive for the sake of their sparkly skins.
At any rate, in Elvenblood, there's a noble elf household featuring the lord cruel father Treves who is like unto a marble statue in a blizzard in terms of coldness, the lady secretive mother Viridina, and their two presumably-teens-or-older children: son and heir Lorryn and disposable daughter Sheyrena. Lorryn is a halfblood, born to Viridina and masked as a fullblood elf from birth by his mother. Sheyrena is the true daughter of the house, but only Viridina and Lorryn know the truth. Naturally the situation turns sticky when the High Council decrees that all male heirs of a certain age must undergo illusion-breaking spells…
But lo! Sheyrena's maid is actually one of those sparkly shapeshifting dragons, changed into the form of a human maidservant, and she has plans for Lorryn, whom she knows to be a wizard. Plot will follow.
Standard fantasy fare, right? Fairly intriguing, right? I was feeling pretty well into the world and the book until the point where Sheyrena, dressed for a fete and annoyed with her gown's long train and how people will tread on it, thinks, "All very well if you are someone like my mother, with prestige and presence—or if you're a real beauty, like Katarina an Vittes" (27-28).
At which point I paused thoughtfully and went, "Huh. Reminds me of that figure skater Katarina Witt."
And I dismissed it as coincidence and read on. Until a few pages later, where it switches to Myre's point of view as she goes to tell another slave to await their mistress's return from a fete, which means sitting in a boring room all alone for hours on end. The slave she chooses is named Tanhya Leis, "a particularly nasty piece of blond work that Myre had been longing to get stirred into mischief for some time now" (39).
Turns out Tanhya is an ex-member of Lord Treves's harem because when her brunette rival Keri Eisa became the favorite, Tanhya fought dirty to try to knock her out of the running. Myre thinks, "You'd think she'd have known that stupid cook's helper of hers would be caught. And that he'd talk once he was caught. I don't care how good you are in bed, that's not going to keep your paramour from telling everything when his tail is in the fire? After all, it was trying to seduce one of the guards into spoiling Keri's looks and making it look like an accident that got her sent down here in the first place" (40).
And that was where I crashed to a halt. The blatant reference to ice skater Tonya Harding conspiring with two men to attack Nancy Kerrigan and keep her out of the 1994 Figure Skating Championships jolted me right out of the story. And nothing else about this "cook's helper" is ever explained either; he exists solely to indicate there were two men involved in the attack. I don't remember making the connection when I read the book the first time, but maybe I wasn't paying as much attention—because this entire little anecdote about Tanhya and Keri is entirely that: anecdotal. It has no effect or import upon the plot whatsoever and, in fact, is not mentioned again. Neither is
In this case, I think the author (or authors) thought she was being clever at inserting an ice skating allusion into the story. There is no narrative or artistic benefit except as an inside joke; clearly I glossed over it the first time and it made no impact, but this second time, the impact is considerable, as is my judgment, which I am fond of casting about like a rock. If this were a book focusing on ice elves or a fantasy skating competition, I wouldn't mind quite as much because the allusion would have a clear connection and reason for being—but ice skaters becoming one-liner harem slaves in a book about elves and dragons and wizards?
Please. Either have a little more context for any real-life allusions you're going to make in your fantasy novel, or don't make your allusions so blatant. Be like Tamora Pierce when she wrote Lady Knight, the fourth book in the young adult series the Protector of the Small—if I recall correctly, there was an afterward from the author explaining that the destruction in a particularly brutal scene was in fact inspired by the 9/11 attack, and a wish to convey the senselessness of the devastation to a younger audience. But when I read the book, the thought of 9/11 had never crossed my mind because Tamora Pierce did not thinly mask the event and insert it into the novel as a pointless aside; instead, she wrote a captivating, intense scene that belonged exactly where it was in the story: in the heartrending heart.