Dreamtrails paved with bones November 15, 2013Posted by dolorosa12 in books, fangirl, reviews.
Tags: alt-history, books, fantasy novels, reviews, samantha shannon, the bone season
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I write fairly frequently about the fact that reading habits change over time, and that I feel things differently as an adult (by which I mean from about the age of 25 onwards) to how I did as a child. I seem to keep coming back to this issue again and again in my writing, worrying away at it. Because when I say I feel things differently, I suspect I mean that I feel things less. It’s as if every book, every show, every song is an attempt to regain a sort of childlike or adolescent intensity. And when I feel it, I am loquaciously grateful.
I sit here, having just finished Samantha Shannon’s debut novel The Bone Season and I am quite literally exhausted with feeling. My mouth is dry, my breathing is shallow and my heart hurts with how much I loved the book. I am astonished by it. It is as if Shannon made a list of everything I personally want in a story and then went away and wrote it for me. As you can imagine, therefore, this review will not even attempt to be objective. I will, however, attempt to explain why The Bone Season hit me in the id quite so hard.
It’s getting to the point where I should have a tag or list named ‘the rubbish I will put up with in order to get stories about humans interacting with angels, demons, or other terrifying supernatural beings’. It will be a long list. I should have a second list, named ‘Things I wish authors of stories about angels, demons and other terrifying supernatural beings would include in their stories’. It would include: a realistic dystopian setting, an extensive criminal underclass which resists passively, a heroine who hates The Oppressive System but also possesses a healthy degree of fear for it that prevents her from fighting it directly, a heroine who has a support network and preferably other female friends, and a recognition that rebellions are likely to be messy and will involve moral greyness.
In other words, the second list would describe The Bone Season. From here on, assume spoilers.
The book is the story of nineteen-year-old Paige Mahoney, who lives in an alternate version of our own world in which humans possess a variety of paranormal abilities, all of which have been outlawed by an oppressive totalitarian government. The only legal way to exist as a ‘voyant’ (short for ‘clairvoyant’) is to do the government’s dirty work and hunt other voyants, a deal which provides security at the expense of longevity. However, as would be realistic in such a setting, an extensive underground network of criminal voyant gangs has sprung up, each operating in its own patch and forming a dual function as a grey market in less than ethical commerce and a community in which fugitive voyants can attain a sense of family and acceptance. Unbeknownst to her father, who works for the government as a scientist, Paige leads a double life in one of the gangs, based in Seven Dials in London. (And can I just go off on a slightly gushing tangent and say that another reason why I adore this book so much is that all the cool people hang out in my favourite parts of London, namely Soho and Covent Garden?)
The inevitable eventually happens, and Paige is captured. Rather than being executed, as she feared, she’s brought to Sheol I, a vast, secret penal community built over the ruins of Oxford. There, Paige learns the truth about her powers and her world. She and the other voyants captured are assigned to Rephaim, extraordinarily powerful supernatural beings who reveal that the totalitarian government under which the voyants have been suffering is the puppet of the Rephaim, and that the voyants have been recruited as foot soldiers in a terrible, otherworldly battle. In Sheol I, voyants are safe to reveal their identities and hone their clairvoyant powers under the tutelage of their assigned Rephaite guard. The only catch? The voyants are prisoners, and completely at the mercy of their Rephaim captors in a profoundly unbalanced arrangement. They are expected to become ruthless soldiers, betraying their fellow voyants if necessary, and treated with utter contempt by the Rephaim, even though the latter rely on them for their existence (the Rephaim feed of the auras of voyant humans). Paige is assigned to a captor called Arcturus, whom she addresses as ‘Warden’ (as this is his position in the Rephaim hierarchy), and who begins to train her in using her abilities. He is a confusing and enigmatic force in her life, both terrifying her and on occasion betraying extraordinary vulnerability and secrets in her presence.
One thing that I really appreciate about The Bone Season is the fact that Paige is understandably wary about her safety, both in London and in Sheol I. She is not reckless, but instead makes all sorts of compromises and sacrifices in order to carve out a space for herself in two extremely dangerous situations. Far too often in stories of this kind, the heroine is overly principled and uncompromising. Paige remains an appealing, but realistically terrified individual. She is very slow to trust Warden, and makes him earn her empathy through openness, genuine and concrete support and the recognition that she possesses power and agency in her own right.
By the same token, I really dislike dystopian novels in which the heroine is completely without a support network and all other characters (especially other female characters) are indistinguishable minor jealous antagonists. Shannon avoids this pitfall admirably in The Bone Season. Paige already has her friends in the criminal voyant underworld, who, while looking out for their own interest, seem to genuinely like her and care about her and provide a space where she is accepted and valued for her abilities. Once she gets to Sheol I, she finds friends and allies among its human and Rephaite inhabitants, all of whom are three-dimensional characters in their own right. And there is no love triangle!
But the best thing about The Bone Season? It’s the first of a seven-book series.
Review of The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature January 13, 2013Posted by dolorosa12 in books, reviews.
Tags: academic books, books, cambridge guide to fantasy literature, edward james, fantasy novels, farah mendlesohn, reviews
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Every year, the Cambridge University Press has a book sale of ‘damaged’ books (in actual fact, most are not damaged at all beyond having a stamp inside saying ‘damaged’). My boyfriend is a CUP sale veteran, and prides himself on coming away with daily hauls of books not only for himself, but for many of his friends. This year, he bought me The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature, edited by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn. I devoured it in two sittings.
I’ve found most academic writing on fantasy to be deeply disappointing, partly because it tends to spend too much time arguing that Tolkienesque heroic/epic fantasy is not all the genre has to offer, and partly because the examples tend to be drawn from books that are not to my taste or bear no relation to where the fantasy field is today. But the Cambridge Companion suffered from none of those problems.
It’s divided into three sections. The first looks back at fantasy’s origins in various 19th-century writings (such as Gothic, adventure stories and children’s fiction). The second outlines various critical approaches (Structuralism, Freudian readings, postmodernism, thematic criticism and so on) that can be used to interpret fantasy literature. The third picks up where the first section left off, and outlines later developments within the various fantasy subgenres. I was particularly impressed at the inclusion of urban fantasy, magical realism and paranormal romance, as the latter in particular is often scorned as a slightly embarrassing relative that it’s best not to mention. I also applaud the inclusion of a chapter by Nnedi Okorafor on fantasy literature by writers of colour, although it saddened me that very few of the works she discussed were mentioned in the other articles (N K Jemisin’s work is important as the work of a writer of colour, but it is also in keeping with certain trends in fantasy literature as a whole and could have been included in chapters on, say, urban fantasy or fantasy grappling with issues of religion and psychology, for example). Chapters on, say, issues of gender and sexuality could have also been interesting to read and it’s a shame none were included.
One of the problems with reviewing a book of this nature is the patchy quality of the chapters as a whole (inevitable when they are written by many different authors). Thus, the chapter on recent developments in children’s fantasy by Catherine Butler was sharp, well-researched and made some excellent points (her observation that one of the major changes in children’s fantasy over the past forty years has been the shift in attitudes towards parental – and other forms of – authority is one I’ve noted myself and really must follow up on in the future), while W. A. Senior’s chapter on quest fantasy is extremely disappointing, doing little more than summarising a few examples of works in this subgenre. As such, the book will be of only mixed use to the students who are its intended audience: while some chapters offer rich, meaty analyses of trends in, and critical approaches toward, fantasy literature, others do little more than point the reader in the direction of particular books or series without explaining why such texts are worthy of discussion in the first place. Veronica Schanoes’ chapter on historical fantasy was also a disappointment, due mainly to the inaccuracy of its title. Rather than being about the subgenre of historical fantasy (books which are set in the past and add fantasy elements to our own world), it was about books with scholarly protagonists and where scholarship and study were the subject. This was very interesting, but it was not about historical fantasy, which was not covered – an odd omission in an otherwise comprehensive survey.
The book’s true value to students of literature lies, I feel, in its extensive bibliography of both key fantasy texts from the past two centuries and critical scholarship on these works. As an introduction, it is weakened by the weaknesses of several of its contributors. However, its intention (and bibliography), if not its execution, do a good job of outlining the wide variety of writing under the fantasy umbrella, as well as its value as a subject of academic research.
The heart is hard to translate; it has a language of its own December 9, 2012Posted by dolorosa12 in books, reviews.
Tags: books, fangirl, guy gavriel kay, review, reviews, the lions of al-rassan
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I kept flipping incredulously back to the publication details when I was reading The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay. I couldn’t believe it was published in 1995. It was so perceptive, so prophetic in what it was saying, that I was shocked that it had been written in a pre-9/11 world. I guess it confirms what we’ve known all along: that there is nothing new in history, and that people have been fighting and losing the same battles over and over again.
Kay’s books tend to be set at turning-points, at times and in places where a small event sets off a chain reaction and leaves the world an entirely different place. Thus we have The Sarantine Mosaic, set in an imaginary Byzantium around the time of the sixth century AD, and The Last Light of the Sun, set in an imaginary Britain during the time of the Viking invasions. The Lions of Al-Rassan takes place in a part of this imaginary world modelled on Moorish Spain in its dying days.
Just as in our world, Al-Rassan, and the neighbouring kingdoms of Esperaña, are inhabited by people of three different religious faiths – the Asharites (standing in for Muslims), the Jaddites (Christians) and the Kindath (Jews). And just as in our world, people of all three faiths exist along a spectrum of tolerance and extremism (although with the Jewish analogue group, as in Moorish Spain, enjoying a much more precarious existence than their Muslim and Christian counterparts). When life is comfortable, tolerance holds sway, but as soon as things start to get difficult, the extremists find their voice. And things are taking a turn for the worse in Al-Rassan.
We are guided through this this world by representatives of all three faiths: Jehane, a Kindath doctor, Rodrigo, a Jaddite soldier, and Ammar, an Asharite poet, courtier and assassin. For various reasons, all three find themselves exiled to the Al-Rassan kingdom of Ragosa at the same time, and their lives – and the lives of the peoples and kingdoms for whom they are representatives – intertwine in various ways. All three exemplify what is best about their respective peoples, as well as demonstrating the value of the world they inhabit. And all three are powerless to stop this world ending, becoming swept up in the collapse of Al-Rassan and the Esperañan reconquest.
All this makes The Lions of Al-Rassan sound very cold-blooded and distant, and yet reading it is an intensely emotional experience. This is, in part, due to the quality of the characters, who are vividly alive and accessible. But it’s also due to the conflict Kay sets up, and how invested the reader becomes in it. This is not a conflict between Al-Rassan and Esperaña or between Asharites and Jaddites, although some characters think or pretend that it is. Rather, it is a conflict between two world views, which are represented on both sides of the Asharite-Jaddite divide.
‘What is worse than ugliness?’
‘You do not really mean that,’ Rodrigo said. ‘I have part of an answer, though. Worse, is when what little space there is for men to move back and forth between worlds disappears because the worlds are lost to hatred.’
On the one hand we have the historical Al-Rassan, a beacon of science, literature, art, culture and education, and people – both in Al-Rassan and Esperaña – who see these things as valuable. On the other, we have intolerance, greed, anti-intellectualism, and people who hate and fear plurality and empathy. The main characters know that this struggle is at their doorsteps, but they are like driftwood caught up in a flood that they cannot control.
Even if you do not know the history of Moorish Spain, it is inevitable from the beginning of the book how things are going to end. In spite of this, The Lions of Al-Rassan is incredibly tense reading. And while the ending is bittersweet rather than depressing, there is something incredibly hurtful about watching people desperately try to save all the things you hold dear from utter destruction at the hands of people who cannot see their value.
Liebster Award November 26, 2012Posted by dolorosa12 in blogging, books, childhood, life, memories.
Tags: books, childhood, his dark materials, internet, memes, memories, philip pullman, shakespeare, sraffies, victor kelleher
I was nominated for a Liebster Award. Says Catie, who nominated me, the Liebster Award is a meme for small blogs (with under 200 followers) where you answer 7 questions and then ask a new set of 7 questions to 7 people. I’m not going to tag other people, but I will answer the questions provided by Catie. And they are:
1. Have you ever read a book that changed your life, or your reading habits?
A book, or rather series of books, did both of those things – at the same time. Most of you probably know that I’m going to say the His Dark Materials trilogy, and you’ll probably know why. But to recap:
When I first read HDM, it pushed my reading habits in a much more fantasy-oriented direction than previously. This led, firstly, towards me developing an interest in medieval literature, which ultimately led to me becoming a PhD student at the University of Cambridge, meeting an amazing group of friends, and my current boyfriend, and deciding to, if at all possible, live in Europe for the remainder of my life.
Secondly, HDM got me a career as a newspaper book-reviewer! When I was 16, I read what I considered to be a very poor review of the third book in the series, The Amber Spyglass. I wrote the reviewer – the children’s books editor at The Sydney Morning Herald – a very snotty letter accusing her of not reading the book before she reviewed it. Rather than throwing my letter in the bin, she offerred me the opportunity to write my own review. This led to a ten-year career writing reviews and interviewing authors for various Australian newspapers.
Finally, HDM saved me, because it introduced me to the people at bridgetothestars.net at a very low point in my life. Those people were there for me when no one else was, and I’ve met so many people I love through that site. btts introduced me to the best friend I will ever have, a woman I consider to be my fourth sister. More broadly, btts was my introduction to online fandom and online friendships and community more broadly, and it remains my gold standard in all such matters, a model of how to do fandom and do friendship right.
I will never stop being thankful to His Dark Materials. It changed my life in such profound ways.
2. If you could recommend one book to the world, what would it be?
To be honest, I’d like to recommend the entire corpus of Victor Kelleher novels, but if I had to select just one, I’d say The Beast of Heaven, which is a deeply unsettling, remorseless and transcendentally beautiful exploration of what it means to be conscious and human. I doubt I will ever read another book more perfect than that. It encapsulates my views on human nature, morality, history and the future completely.
3. Do you read when you’re out and about or just at home?
Obviously I read a lot for my PhD, so by definition I read while I’m out and about – in libraries. I also read for pleasure when I’m out and about. I tend to carry novels with me everywhere, and my favourite thing to do is sit alone in cafes and read.
4. Is there any genre that you don’t read, and why? Or do you only read one particular type of book?
I pretty much read everything, although I tend to steer clear of epic or heroic fantasy written by men. Modernist literature isn’t my cup of tea either, although I’ve enjoyed books by Faulkner and some poetry written during this time period.
5. What is the first book that you remember reading?
The first novel I remember reading was Rainstones by Jackie French. It’s not actually a novel, but rather a book of short stories, but I was immensely proud of myself at the time for being able to read a ‘chapter book’. I’d obviously read picture books before then, and had lots of books read to me by my mother, but I don’t remember the first.
6. What is the last book that you read that was outside your comfort zone?
I read a book of crime stories in German over the (northern) summer, and that was out of my comfort zone because I’m still not completely fluent at reading in German. But it was good to push myself.
7. If you had to memorise a novel or book of poetry to preserve it à la Fahrenheit 451, which would it be and why?
This question makes me so uncomfortable and upset! It reminds me of this neo-Victorian novel I read a few years ago, which has a scene where one character asks the (bookish) protagonist to imagine a scenario where every copy of the great works of the literary canon are being drawn along a conveyor belt into a furnace. The protagonist has a gun. If she shoots and kills a human being, the conveyor belt stops. Reading it, I started to hyperventilate. Is one human life worth more than the Western literary canon? It is unbearable to be forced to confront that question.
In light of that anecdote, I think I’d have to say the complete works of William Shakespeare should be saved. I’m uncomfortable with the notion of canon – any canon besides a personal canon, that is – and yet I love the plays of Shakespeare and can see how they have influenced so much writing in English and say such interesting things about humanity. And on a more political level, I love how the foundation of the English literary canon is a collaborative effort of people who stood somewhat outside the boundaries of ordinary society, and its prime mover was an aspirational, lower middle-class man who somehow managed to educate himself and say such clever things. It appeals to my socialism and belief in the power of education.
I’m not going to tag anyone, but if you’d like to join in, consider yourselves tagged. These are my seven questions:
1. How have your reading tastes changed in the past ten years? In the past five?
2. Do you read book reviews? Do you think they influence your reading habits?
3. What is your opinion of sites such as Goodreads and reviews on Amazon?
4. Do you note down quotes from books or poetry? What is a quote that means a lot to you?
5. Which fictional character did you identify with as a child or teenager? Looking back, do you think that identification was accurate?
6. What is the most important thing you learnt from a work of fiction?
7. And I’d also like an answer to the same question I was asked: in a Fahrenheit 451 scenario, which book would you save?
Tags: feminism, fever ray, florence + the machine, florence welch, kate bush, music, persephone, the knife
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When I go back to that well, that well which to me is so deep and giving, I feel guilt. What if they see that I’m still that girl wearing black in the hallway of some eternal school? What if they see that what obsesses me doesn’t make the cover of Wired like post-scarcity economics or reputation-based currency system? I feel I should not be That Girl. I should give equal time to others. But I can’t help it, I can’t help how the symbols of the story crackle in my head, I can’t help how I see my life in that story, how few stories we have that are about a girl’s journey, and part of the reason this one hits so hard is that there is a rape at the center of it, and we all have to decide how we deal with that elephant in the Sicilian field, whether we say she loved the darkness too, whether we give her all the power, whether we say she was stolen, whether we say she was happy underground, whether we say she was miserable and her mother saved her.
- Catherynne M. Valente, ‘My Dinner with Persephone’
A few weeks ago, I started listening to Kate Bush. I did this because I felt it was high time I listened to her full discography, because I love the music of Florence Welch and Annie Lennox (who are her obvious musical descendants), and the music of The Knife and Fever Ray and Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams and the female vocalists of Massive Attack and Strawpeople. Because I love Angela Carter and Frida Kahlo and stories about Persephone and the way Cat Valente writes about interiority, and maybe by grouping all these things together, I’m drawing connections which these people neither intended nor perceive, but to me, what they are (and why I love them) is women who feel things and communicate those feelings.
When I decided I liked Kate Bush, I took to the internet, as is my wont, to do what I usually do when I like something: broadcast my love to the world, Google lyrics, post video clips. After a while, I noticed something: I was apologising for liking Kate Bush’s music. Every time I posted a link, reblogged a clip, tweeted a Tweet, I was saying things like ‘living the cliché’ or ‘aren’t I such a stereotype?’. I was preempting any criticism for being one of those ankh-wearing Persephone girls that Valente talks about in the above quote.
I have noticed that when people criticise these lyricists – Kate Bush and Florence Welch in particular – they are often criticised for their insistent introversion, for the way they verbalise their emotions. (I once read a review of Florence’s Ceremonials album that essentially criticised her for not being Bob Dylan.) It’s as if what they sing about, what they’re feeling, is small and personal and irrelevant, whereas when a man – say, Neil Young* – sings about his feelings, they’re large and universal and important.**
I haven’t quite worked out what exactly this all means. It is a many-stranded thing. There is one strand that denies these songs any universality,*** or suggests that if you see yourself in them, you are an ankh-wearing Persephone girl whose emotions cannot be anything other than adolescent. There is a strand whereby we put these singers off in a ‘kooky’ category, because it’s easier to look at the swan costumes, the masks, the glittery make-up, than actually listen to what they are saying, to unpack the imagery and literary allusions.
And there is a strand of policing women’s emotions. I’m not saying here that men’s emotions aren’t policed (in fact, this is one of the few instances where men have a more narrow range of options than women), but they are policed in a slightly different way. It’s the notion that yes, of course women are (and should be) emotional, but their emotions shouldn’t be complicated, or they should only be pleasant emotions, or perhaps a better way of phrasing this is that women are taught that they must paradoxically be ‘emotional’ (because to be feminine is to be emotional), but that their emotions must never impinge, impose, disturb or inconvenience other people. To allow yourself to feel Florence Welch emotions, Kate Bush emotions, Frida Kahlo emotions, Persephone emotions – and, more unforgivably, to express those emotions to other people – is adolescent.
Self-reflection and self-perception: when a man does it, it’s a mirror of the human condition. When a woman does it, it’s self-absorption. Interiority: when a man does it, it can be universal. When a woman does it, it’s introversion. But I am going to stop apologising. I am a Persephone woman. I will feel, and I will give those feelings words.
* I take him as an example because I’ve had so many conversations with my father where he has said that Neil Young’s music is amazing because ‘it’s so introverted and personal, and yet I identify with it so much’. Kurt Cobain might work as a good example too. Nirvana’s songs are so intensely specific, and yet they’re often held up as being definitive representations of an entire era and demographic.
** This is another version of how literature by a man with a domestic setting is seen as an important exploration of the human condition, whereas literature with a similar setting by a woman is seen as small in scope and petty in concern.
*** Which is patently ridiculous. It is pretty obvious what this song is about, and it is a sadly all-too-common experience.
It’s about power March 2, 2012Posted by dolorosa12 in books, fangirl, reviews.
Tags: books, crossroads, fangirl, fantasy novels, kate elliott, reviews, traitors' gate
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[Spoilers for Kate Elliott's Crossroads series, in particular the third book, Traitors' Gate.]
My heart broke twice while reading Traitors’ Gate, the third book in Kate Elliott’s Crossroads series. The first time was when Captain Anji finds out his wife Mai is dead, and he collapses and has to be held up by his men. The second time was when Mai returned to Anji seven months later, only to discover that he has remarried and that her son doesn’t recognise her, and calls Anji’s new wife ‘Mama’. The ending of this book (and of the series’ first trilogy*) is absolutely brutal.
It’s also one of the cleverest examinations of the nature of power I’ve read for quite a while. That theme is like catnip to me. I love books which look at who has power, why, and what that means, especially if they throw in a bonus exploration of different kinds of power, how they are valued relative to one another, and what that says about a particular society. That, in its essence, is what Crossroads is about, although that makes it sound very dry indeed. And the series would be dry, if not for its vibrant worldbuilding and engaging cast of characters.
When we left our characters at the end of the second book, our heroes were facing existential peril. The mercenary leader Captain Anji and his wife Mai had settled in the Hundred and had won the trust of the people among whom they lived mainly due to Mai’s talents as a merchant, diplomat and generally adaptable and accommodating person. Mai had given birth to a son, Atani, and the pair looked set to be building a new life in the Hundred, once they’d dealt with the pesky problem of an army led by tyrants slaughtering its way through the land, and the ever-menacing threat of the Sirniakan Empire hovering just off-screen. (Anji was a son of the former Sirniakan ruler, and it is a land where one claims the throne by murdering all rival claimants. Anji had been in exile since he was a child, but the threat remains.) But how wrong I was!
Well, up to a point. Our heroes do deal with these threats, and once they’re done, the Hundred is arguably a safer and more stable land. But as the book progresses, it becomes more and more apparent that not all of them are as heroic as previously imagined. I’m talking, of course, about Anji, and I’m kicking myself for not realising that there were little hints thrown in here and there in the previous books to show us that his intentions were not as pure as they seem, as seen through Mai’s adoring eyes.
What Mai – and the reader – thinks she and Anji are doing is settling down in a new homeland, adapting themselves to the customs and culture of that land, and giving back to that society according to their means and ability. As such, she puts down roots, forging connections through a combination of trade, friendship and the exchange of ideas, as well as doing her part to tie Anji’s Qin mercenaries more firmly to the land through marriages with local women. She is the consummate diplomat, able to keep her own feelings at some remove, a hard bargainer with a canny understanding of human nature who is able to persuade people to her cause without making them feel like they’ve been exploited (as, indeed, they have not).
Anji makes use of this, as his skills are more useful on the battlefield than in the marketplace. Theirs was an arranged marriage, and yet it appeared to be a happy one. Anji respected Mai’s mercantile abilities, and while the circumstances of their union were inherently a power imbalance (Anji and his mercenaries were in control of the trading town in which Mai lived, and when he asked to marry her, there was no way she could’ve refused), they were comfortable with each other and indeed felt something which I read as love.
This is what makes Anji’s actions such an utter betrayal, and Mai’s reactions so painful to read. It is not that he pretended to love her, and yet used her, but that he genuinely loved her and used her all the same.
For in fact what is really going on is that Anji, far from integrating and adapting into life in the Hundred, in fact views it as a land ripe for his rule. Exiled from his paternal inheritance of Sirniaka, and his maternal Qin relatives (and perhaps because of the fact that he cannot find power and acceptance among his kin), he sets about conquering another kingdom for himself. And he uses Mai – and her talents – to shield people from realising what is really going on. They see a saviour with a beautiful and charming wife and cute son, when what he actually is is an inflexible, jealous**, covetous ruler, better only in degree and not in kind from the tyrants he overthrows.
What Elliott is actually doing in this series is interrogating the hackneyed old epic fantasy plot of ‘dispossessed man saves world and is thus its rightful ruler’. In giving readers access to the lives of characters not often shown in this type of fantasy (farmers, artisans, merchants) she shows us why people would accept the rule of a leader like Anji (give up freedom, gain stability, crudely speaking). At the same time, through Mai, she tells us the stories that people tell themselves to avoid seeing the truth of the powers that control their lives. The myth of the chosen, rightful, just ruler is one such story with which people deceive themselves, and Elliott dismantles it with dexterity, pathos and emotional honesty.
* There will be a stand-alone book featuring the characters from the first trilogy, and then another trilogy set some time after the events of the first, with (presumably) a new set of focal characters.
** The instant he slapped Mai’s face in anger at her going to the temple of Ushara (a place where people worship by sleeping with the temple acolytes – which Mai did not do, as she was only accompanying a friend), I knew that Anji was irredeemable. Yes, he loved Mai, but he loved her in a jealous, possessive ‘don’t touch my things’ kind of way.
Dystopiana*, Australiana** January 25, 2012Posted by dolorosa12 in books, childhood, life, memories, reviews.
Tags: australia, australiana, dystopia, dystopian YA, earthsong, fire dancer, galax-arena, gillian rubinstein, jackie french, john marsden, my sister sif, parkland, ruth park, shinkei, skymaze, space demons, taronga, the music from the sea, tomorrow series, victor kelleher
I’ve always found it a combination of surprising and amusing when people talk about the recent dystopian YA boom as if it’s a new thing, as if Suzanne Collins plucked The Hunger Games out of the (dystopia-free) ether and opened the floodgates to a host of imitators. (Well, that’s sort of what happened, but that’s beside the point.) Growing up in Australia in the 90s, basically everything I read was dystopian, before I even knew what the word ‘dystopian’ meant.
The first author I got into in a major way (and who, indeed, has the dubious honour of writing the first novel-length book I ever read) was Jackie French, whose hippie-like existence in a small town near Braidwood informed her futuristic science-fiction novels for children. While she’s better known for other works, at age seven, my favourite books of hers were a five-part series, beginning with Music From the Sea, set in an Australia so parched by the sun that humans have become nocturnal and are living a lifestyle reminiscent of early farming/gathering societies. That somewhat gentle introduction to the ‘harsh Australian weather’ subgenre of dystopian literature led me to darker fare that mixed its narratives of personal and communal heroism with pointedly political calls to arms.
John Marsden’s Tomorrow series is the environmental-political Australian dystopian series par excellence. Beginning with a bang with Tomorrow, When the War Began (a title which implies that its story could happen on any particular tomorrow), this seven-book series follows the adventures of a group of rural Australian teenagers who return from a camping holiday in the bush to find that the country has been invaded, their hometown was the focal point of the invasion, and everyone they love has been rounded up and imprisoned in the local showground. The teenagers retreat to the bush and become a guerrilla resistance force, all the while agonising over whether their actions are just. Written against the backdrop of Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor, this series brought home the realities of war to an entire generation of Australian teenagers more used to thinking of conflict as something that happened ‘over there’.
I actually don’t think that the Tomorrow series is the best of 90s Australian dystopian YA fiction, although it has great emotional resonance and Marsden’s evocation of the Australian landscape, and the unease most Australians feel within it, is spot on. But the later novels lack the believability that made the first few so powerful, and an ill-advised spin-off trilogy means the series ends, if not with a whimper, not really with a bang either.
No, in my opinion, there is a three-way tie for the best stories of this genre between the works of Victor Kelleher, Gillian Rubinstein and one particular novel of Ruth Park’s.
Most Australians of my generation will be familiar with at least one book by Kelleher, Taronga, as it was widely studied in high school during our teenage years, but I’ve always felt Kelleher was tragically unrecognised. His trilogy beginning with Parkland, which I reviewed here a while back, is both a Cassandra-like warning and a hopeful shout of encouragement. In each book, in different ways, he wipes the slate clean, so to speak, recreating subtly different Gardens of Eden to see if, once tempted with consciousness, human nature could ever lead us anywhere other than destruction.
Gillian Rubinstein is also concerned with human nature in two very good series of hers, the Galax-Arena series and the Space Demons trilogy. I have blogged about Galax-Arena in relation to The Hunger Games already, so suffice it to say that the series is, at its heart, about the exploitation of (often poor, always defenseless) children at the hands of (often wealthy, always privileged) adults, and can be read as a metaphor for the way First World countries can only ‘live’ as well as they do by (figuratively) killing the Third World.
The Space Demons trilogy is a little different, because it uses its broader dystopian concerns as a backdrop on which to set four or five parallel coming-of-age narratives. Four (and later more) young people find themselves sucked into the virtual world of their computer games (and, in Shinkei, the third book, of cyberspace), within which they must resolve their numerous personal issues, and, as becomes increasingly apparent, the problems that beset the world. The final book reads like an idealistic call to arms, a plea to remember dreams in the face of privilege, cynicism, exploitation and fanaticism, and is one of the best intertwinings of the personal with the political that I have ever encountered.
Ruth Park’s My Sister Sif makes it onto this list simply because its dystopian nature isn’t immediately apparent, and the way it sneaks up on you is absolutely terrifying. You think you’re reading a fantasy book about family tensions, parental expectation and an island paradise populated by real-life mermaids, and then Park will give a throwaway reference to the characters having never seen a butterfly or a certain breed of animal because they’re extinct. It’s chilling.
Why, then, were Australian YA authors rushing down the dystopian road a good two decades before their (mainly American) counterparts? I have several theories, but what I’ve always felt was the mostly likely cause is the intersection of Australia’s bizarre geography and bizarre history and social mythology (mythology in the sense of stories people tell about themselves).
Australians cannot quite make up their minds about these things. On the one hand, there’s this weird sort of pride in the harshness of our landscape, and on the other, there’s the fact that very few Australians actually live in it. Australians, for the most part, cling desperately to the coastal cities, and yet there’s this constant awareness that just around the corner, there’s this vast, parched desert or dry bushland just waiting to be set on fire and burn your house to the ground. As an Australian, the recent climate change debate has always struck me as very odd because, well, if we were talking about global warming in my first grade class in 1991 and the salinity problems of the Murray-Darling basin in my fifth grade class in 1995, and the hole in the ozone layer since forever, it’s not as if suddenly clued-in politicians have only just become aware of it.
Couple this anxiety about the physical features of the land with a general sense of anxiety about the location of the land itself and about one’s place in it (and by this I mean that a dominant strand of the Australian mythos has always been an uncertainty about where and what Australia actually is***) and you get this narrative of discomfort and unease. Australian literature, by and large, does not feature people ‘lighting out for the territories’ in search of freedom and prosperity. Instead, one heads off into a hostile wilderness where general weirdness goes on.****
All this combined to make Australia a fruitful breeding ground for dystopian literature. When these novelists wanted to play around with their fears for the future, their belief in multiculturalism or political anxieties, the Australian experience provided a physical and mythological backdrop for the stories that arose. It would be wonderful if the new dystopian craze introduced these wonderful works to a wider audience.
* I know that’s not how you decline Greek.
** Also, this is not about Mad Max.
*** As demonstrated by the common use of ‘the West’ to describe a group of nations of which (usually Anglo, almost always white) Australians see themselves as part, despite the fact that the only place to which Australia is west is New Zealand.
**** Think Picnic At Hanging Rock. Think Walkabout.***** This is why the Tomorrow series is so powerful, because the civilised space of hearth and home has been rendered dangerous, and the story’s heroes find the normally hostile wilderness a welcoming haven.
***** This is, obviously, a literary trope mainly employed by white (usually Anglo) Australians, and I think stems from a sense of guilt at what was done to the indigenous inhabitants of the land which Australian culture (until very recently) felt profoundly uneasy examining in an open way. And so it was explored in this slantwise manner.