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Tell them stories, twenty years on October 17, 2017

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, fandom, fangirl, memories.
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Twenty years ago (or nineteen years, nine months, and about twenty days ago, if you want to get really technical), I was a restless thirteen-year-old, stuck inside during a rainy week on holiday down the south coast of New South Wales. It was the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, which meant that I was carting around a massive haul of books, given to me for both my birthday and Christmas. I had read all my new books — all except one, whose cover put me off. My younger sister, fed up with me moping around the house complaining of ‘nothing to read,’ made the very sensible point that I hadn’t read that book. ‘I don’t like books about animals,’ I objected. She insisted. I am forever grateful that she did. Feeling resentful, I sat down to read Northern Lights (or, as my edition was called, The Golden Compass), the first in Philip Pullman’s sweeping, expansive children’s trilogy, His Dark Materials. I was hooked from the first page, inhaled the book in one sitting, and, once I’d finished it, opened it up at the beginning and reread it without pause. I reread the book four times over the course of that one-week holiday.

It’s hard to describe what it felt like, to read that story as a thirteen-year-old. I was already a voracious reader, and I had already encountered many beloved stories, books I would reread incessantly, or borrow repeatedly from the local library. There were already books I felt fannish about, and whose characters I identified with and drew courage from. But this was different. It was like being seen for the first time. It was as if ideas, beliefs and fears I had long felt but was not yet able to articulate had been given voice and shape on the page. As a teenager, my many rereads of Northern Lights (and, after impatient waits of one year and three years, respectively, for its follow-ups The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass) helped guide both my reading tastes, and my burgeoning sense of political awareness. My love of the series got me a paid newspaper reviewing gig at the age of sixteen, and I continued to freelance as a reviewer for various Australian broadsheets for ten years after that.

Ten years ago (or, if you want to get technical, ten years, nine months, and a couple of days ago), I was in a bad place. I had returned to my hometown after graduating university, and although I had a good job and a lot of family support, I was desperately unhappy, and felt isolated and directionless. All my friends seemed to have adjusted to adult life in a way that I was incapable of, and I felt left behind. In a fit of desperation I — who mistrusted the internet and who barely went online except to check email — typed ‘His Dark Materials fansite’ into Google. I found something that saved me. 2007 was not a good year, but it was made infinitely more bearable by the incredible collection of people — most of whom lived on the other side of the world — who hung out in the forums of that site. Most of them had been there for years, and were all talked out about His Dark Materials, so instead they analysed other books, shared music tips, or just vented about their daily lives. Although by their standards I was a latecomer, they welcomed me with open arms. For a long time, the only thing that got me through the day was the prospect of hanging out in the IRC chat room they’d set up — the international composition of this group of fans (plus the fact that most of them were students or otherwise kept odd hours) meant that someone was always around at all hours. This was my first foray into online fandom, and I made friends for life. Meeting the sraffies — as we called ourselves — was like coming home. Being with them was, like reading the books that had brought us all together, like being seen for the first time. I was able to relax and be myself and feel safe in a way that I hadn’t really anywhere since becoming an adult. Ten years have passed since then, and the group of us have gone through so many things together. We’ve graduated from university, changed jobs and careers, had books and academic articles published, moved cities, emigrated, fallen in and out of love (in some cases, with each other), mourned deaths, and supported each other through whatever life threw at us. We travel specifically to meet up with each other, and if work, study, or holidays bring us by chance to each others’ cities, we make a point to hang out. One of the friends I met through His Dark Materials was even a bridesmaid at my wedding.

I recently did a reread of the trilogy, wanting to refresh my memory before reading Pullman’s much anticipated foray back into the world of His Dark Materials. I was anxious that it wouldn’t affect me as it had when I was younger, that I would pick up on flaws, that its emotional notes would leave me unmoved. I shouldn’t have worried. Reading Pullman’s words again, returning to that world, was like falling into water. Like the best and most meaningful of stories, it gave me something different, as it had done with each reread, and reading it as a thirty-two-year-old woman was different to reading it as a thirteen-year-old girl, or when I was in my twenties. But, like Lyra relearning to read the alethiometer as an adult after losing the unconscious ease with which she read it as a child, it was a deeper, richer experience — not better, not worse, just different. In the years since I first opened Northern Lights and read those resonant first words, Lyra and her dæmon, I’ve finished high school. I’ve graduated three times from two different universities, with an Honours degree, MPhil, and doctorate. I’ve changed careers three times. I’ve emigrated, lived in two new countries, acquired a new citizenship, learnt two new languages (as well as many dead languages), presented at conferences, been published academically in two very different fields, fallen in love, had my heart broken, and fallen in love again. In those years, I found my home, and I found myself again. In other words, I’ve done exactly what His Dark Materials urges: live, as much as I can, feel, as much as I can bear, and learn, as much as I am able. On Thursday, I will collect my preordered copy of La Belle Sauvage, the first of Pullman’s prequel trilogy that will return readers to the world of His Dark Materials. I will sit down and read it in a desperate, yearning rush. I wonder what the twenty years that follow will bring. I know that having read this new book — and those that follow — will help me cope with whatever those next years throw at me.

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Shaped by the clearest blue October 1, 2017

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, reviews.
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Laini Taylor is a writer whose works appeal directly to my id. If you like YA novels with human/non-human relationships, characters living with the aftermath of destructive, supernatural wars, non-human characters that have to feed on humans in some way in order to survive, weird, slightly skewiff versions of central European cities whose beauty and magic have been dialled up to 100, and journeys to creepy otherworlds, Taylor’s are the books for you. If none of these things sound particularly appealling, it may be worth giving her books a miss. Her most recent novel makes use of all these familiar ingredients, but adds yet one more element that seems almost designed to appeal to me: one of its two point-of-view characters is a librarian.

Cover-Strange the Dreamer

Unlike Taylor’s previous series, which was set in a fantasy version of our own world in contemporary Prague, her new book, Strange the Dreamer, takes place entirely within a secondary world. It interweaves the story of the eponymous Lazlo Strange, a misfit orphan who finds a home for himself among the books archived in the library where he works, with that of Sarai, a demon girl who lives an isolated life in a city that floats in the air, surrounded by dust and echoes. Blessed with a rapacious appetite for stories and a vivid imagination, Lazlo becomes obsessed with tales about a lost city whose name was stolen from its inhabitants’ minds in punishment for crimes lost to history. Although dismissed by those around him — more concerned with feats of architecture, engineering and alchemy — as a fanciful dreamer, it’s Lazlo’s knowledge of this city that’s most in demand when some of its inhabitants — thought to be a myth — come calling, asking for volunteers to help untether them from the floating city that plagues them.

Strange the Dreamer is on one level a story about dealing with trauma. As the mystery behind the floating city and the nameless city above which it hovers unfolds, it becomes apparent that not only Lazlo and Sarai, but also pretty much every secondary character is a survivor of trauma. Their ways of coping with this range from doing the best they can with the tools they’ve been given, to completely self-destructive, and it’s refreshing to see Taylor give her characters this space where the full array of responses to trauma can be explored.

All this makes Strange the Dreamer seem like very hard going, but it’s also a book about the power of dreams and stories. Taylor’s use of language gives it a deliberately fairytale quality, and it exists in a similarly folkloric space in which stories seem to shape reality. The broad sweep of history, and the ways that people remember and understand that history distort and influence their present-day circumstances. If they want to be saved, they will need to change the way they remember, and whose voices they allow to tell their story.

Sisters, you can still stand tall September 1, 2017

Posted by dolorosa12 in blogging, books, meta, reviews.
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I’m the oldest of five sisters, so I’m always on the lookout for stories that reflect my own experience of sisterhood: stories about groups of girls whose personalities may be very different, but whose shared childhood engenders a closeness and a strong sense of mutual support, even if they don’t always understand one another. Unfortunately, the majority of the stories I’ve encountered that explore sibling relationships seem to prioritise brothers (or brothers and sisters), or, if they focus on sisters, emphasise the antagonistic elements of their relationship, as if unwilling to admit that sisters can be supportive of and close to each other. The three books I’m reviewing today, however, were exactly what I wanted: stories with sisters (or, in one case, two girls who were like sisters in every way but blood) front and centre, and stories where sisters were sources of support and strength to each other.

Cover-Five Daughters of the Moon

Leena Likitalo’s novel, The Five Daughters of the Moon is the first in a fantasy duology reimagining the events leading up to the Russian revolution, from the perspective of five sisters roughly analogous with the Romanov princesses. This being a fantasy retelling, however, there are various interesting twists to historical events: some of the sisters have supernatural abilities, others are caught up in the revolutionary movement sweeping their country, and theirs is a matriarchal monarchy ruled by their mother, who is ‘married’ to the moon (a deity in their religion) and takes various lovers to be the earthly fathers of her children. Some of these elements work better than others, and where the story is weakest, to my mind, is in its interpretation of the causes of unrest and revolution, and in its depiction of a Rasputin-like figure (fiendish, terrifying, creator of supernatural automata to control the royal sisters, and secretly masterminding the revolution for his own gain). I’ve always been uneasy with the way some writers seem to interpret revolutions as inherently unjust, unnecessary, and the fault of ignorant people jealous of the wealth and power of their superiors and being manipulated into violent unrest by villains keen to create chaos in order to advance their own interests. It’s why I gave up on The Legend of Korra after one season. Unfortunately, Likitalo takes this line with the revolution brewing in The Five Daughters of the Moon.

The book is stronger in its depiction of the relationship between the five sisters: Celestia, heir to the throne and burdened by the weight of expectation and responsibility, Elise, soft-hearted and burning with revolutionary fevour, Sibilia, stuck in the middle and uncomfortably suspended between childhood and adulthood and impatient with this status, Merile, who cares more for animals than people, and the fey, fragile Alina. They’ve all led a sheltered existence, and over the course of the book their eyes are opened, and they learn to draw strength and courage from each other. It will be interesting to see how things conclude in the second book, and despite my dissatisfaction with Likitalo’s interpretation of revolution, her exploration of the relationships between the five sisters is enough to keep me reading.

Cover-Jewel Lapidary

Fran Wilde’s novella, The Jewel and Her Lapidary, takes place in a land ruled by Jewels — those who wear gemstones imbued with great power — and whose rule is upheld by Lapidaries, who possess the ability to harness the power of the gemstones. The relationship between a Jewel and their Lapidary is thus deeply symbiotic, with the power firmly in the hands of the Lapidary. Those who can harness the gemstones have the ability to reshape the land — but also control the minds and realities of others, and the survival of their realm thus depends on their honesty and good intentions. Unfortunately, the land’s vast wealth, and its pacifism make it a tempting target, and the young Jewel Lin and her Lapidary Sima find themselves singlehandedly defending their kingdom against an invasion. Both had considered themselves to be weak, but their devotion to one another and strong sense of responsibility make them equal to the challenge of ensuring their people’s survival. While the pair are not sisters in the strictest sense, the rules of magic in the story have meant that they were raised together with fierce devotion, and are sisters in all but name. It is, in some ways, a profoundly unequal relationship: Sima has all the magical power, and her ability to manipulate the gems which Lin wears gives her a power of life and death over Lin, while at the same time the rules of their society require a Lapidary’s priority to be the safety and survival of their Jewel. The profundity of the bond which this strange relationship engenders is the key to the survival of their people, and Wilde tells a deeply poignant story in which compassion, quick thinking, and the ability to appear insignificant and weak save the day, rather than violence or even raw magical power. This was a story that left me wanting more, so I was very happy with the news that Wilde will be writing more stories in this universe in the future.

Cover-Buried Heart

Like Wilde, Kate Elliott celebrates the bonds between female characters and the kinds of power that bloom in unexpected places, and like Likitalo her book Buried Heart, the third in a YA trilogy, is concerned with revolution. Unlike Likitalo, Elliott gives nuanced voice to the legitimate cause of her revolutionaries, the people of Efua who in this book rise to overthrow their oppressive Saroese colonists. This final book contains all the best elements of the trilogy as a whole (and indeed of Elliott’s entire corpus): sweeping, epic drama of a society on the brink of profound transformation, a sincere engagement with the dehumanising effect of colonialism on both the oppressors and the oppressed, comprehensive worldbuilding that considers how a society would function on both a macro and a micro level, and the prioritising of relationships between girls and women. The latter is an utter delight, and I enjoyed in particular the depiction of Jessamy, the narrator, her sisters, and her mother Kiya, because it allowed for the exploration of so many different types of power. Jessamy herself is active in a way that is often represented: physically courageous, quick-tempered, and quick to assume positions of leadership. However, by centring so many other girls and women, Elliott doesn’t allow this to be the only kind of power and authority represented in the book. Jessamy’s disabled sister Maraya has a sharp, lawyerly mind, and is skilled at research, wading through dense documents to get to the heart of them in a way that will advance her cause. Her sister Amaya is skilled at acting, and is able to use this in order to disarm the powerful, until they dismiss her as insignificant, which is very useful in spying and gathering information. But the character who meant the most to me was Jessamy’s brilliant mother Kiya, who was given a prominence and authority rarely seen in portrayals of mothers in YA literature. Kiya’s strength comes from her identity as a mother, and all the skills we later see her deploying are those she honed as a parent: care for others, the ability to juggle multiple tasks while also looking ahead to the near and distant future, a strong sense others and their needs and motives, and the ability to console and inspire. It is because of, and not in spite of, these strengths that she becomes the leader of the revolution sweeping Efua, and it was profoundly moving to me to see a character like Kiya honoured, lauded and respected in this way. Elliott is far too sensible a writer to imply that revolutions are won or lost on the basis of their leadership alone — and indeed she devotes a great deal of time to the different groups of people who make common cause in order to fight against their oppressors. However, as unrest builds and the chance to right the wrongs that have plagued Efua since the arrival of the Saroese approaches, the revolution is in safe hands with Kiya at its head.

Female characters in The House of Binding Thorns April 23, 2017

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, reviews.
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One of my favourite series of books, which I have been reading and rereading since childhood, is Monica Furlong’s Wise Child and Juniper duology.* This series of books is historical fantasy, set in early medieval Cornwall and Dál Riata, and the main reason why I keep coming back to it, like a well that never runs dry, is its emphasis on the day-to-day, ordinary work of women — spinning, weaving, harvesting and storing food for winter, gathering herbs and brewing beer — which it imbues with a kind of power and magic. Most of the important relationships in these books are between girls and/or women. Although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, I feel that books like this did a lot to shape my narrative preferences, especially the idea that you can have a perfectly interesting story which involves few male characters, and focuses on stereotypically ‘female’ activies without a battlefield in sight. Consciously or unconsciously, I find myself searching for these kinds of stories — stories where the domestic sphere isn’t devalued, where a sense of community, communal activity and interdependence is prioritised, and where ‘women’s work’ drives the plot.

Cover-House of Binding Thorns

The House of Binding Thorns, the second book in Aliette de Bodard’s Dominion of the Fallen series, perfectly encapsulates these qualities. I knew I was in for a treat when I read one of the posts de Bodard had written in the week following the book’s publication, ‘The Fallacy of Agency: on Power, Community and Erasure’, and found myself nodding in vigorous agreement:

The other thing about dismissing powerlessness is that it devalues and erases the oppressed. It’s saying, essentially, that the less power one has, the less worthy of a story one is. That if someone is truly oppressed, and the story isn’t about some brash rebellion, some gaining of that overt power, then it’s not worth telling. That being oppressed is some sort of grey, featureless state where nothing worth notice happens—that there are no sorrows, no joys, no everyday struggles, no little victories to be snatched. That, in short, the only story of oppression worth telling is the brazen breaking of it.

The other thing that overemphasising agency does is that it makes it sound like a bad thing to be dependent on others, and especially being part of a community you can rely on. This is problematic on several levels: the first and most important one is that we are not and were not meant to be self-reliant (raising a child, for instance, is seen today as the job of a nuclear family, but it’s frazzling and exhausting and really much easier if we come back to the way it was done: by the extended family/community). Admitting that one can’t do everything alone isn’t a moral failing or a weakness: it’s deeply and fundamentally human.

This latter point is crucial in appreciating just what de Bodard has achieved, particularly with her female characters in this book. Set in a ruined, post-apocalyptic Paris run by conflicting Houses led by fallen angels, along with a Vietnamese dragon kingdom under the Seine pursuing its own agenda, The House of Binding Thorns abounds with a multiplicity of female characters. And, unlike Furlong’s work, which achieves a sense of interdependence and community by limiting women’s stories to a single sphere, de Bodard’s book allows women to exist in multiple spaces and pursue different aims. She by no means devalues the domestic: a fair portion of the book takes place in kitchens, living rooms and marketplaces, and is concerned with pregnancy and childbirth, preparing food, sharing out precious resources within immigrant communities, tending to the sick and so on. But alongside these women who concern themselves with the work of nurturing, protecting and sustaining fragile communities, there are also women exercising power overtly, politicians and wielders of supernatural power.

She allows for women who are steely and ambitious, and sets them beside women who are self-sacrificing or powerless, and gives space to all their stories. There are white women and women of colour, queer women and straight women, cis women and trans women, mothers and grandmothers and women who would never dream of having children. In other words, The House of Binding Thorns gives voice to as full a range of women’s experiences as possible. The world of the Dominion of the Fallen books is in some ways incredibly bleak: it’s a ruined and blasted landscape, rife with inequality, filled with self-interested immortals locked in endless political battles over what remains, and humans whose only choices are servitude or precarious survival outside the House system. However, de Bodard shows the glimmers of light that persist: bottles of fish sauce, hoarded and passed around migrant communities, the hard-won joy of learning a new language, the birth of a child, or the unstinting love and support of a beloved partner. There is hope amid the ruins, even if it only exists in tiny spaces, carved out at great cost.

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*Years later she published a third book in the series, Colman, but I have not read it.

Books for joy, part 2 March 19, 2017

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Normally when I review multiple books in the one blog post, I try to group things that have some thematic similarities, or at least some common thread running through them which makes discussing them jointly appropriate. However, the three books reviewed here — a YA romance with a fairytale twist, a gentle coming-of-age story about vocation, subsistence, and the quiet beauty of simple, everyday work, and a dystopian tale of revolution and oppression — have little in common beyond the simple fact that they brought me joy.

Cover-Rose and Dagger

The Rose and the Dagger, Renée Ahdieh’s sequel to her 1001 Nights retelling, The Wrath and the Dawn, is a wonderful mix of evocative, folkloric storytelling and the tense buildup to a rebellion. The first book saw the brave teenage girl Shahrzad walk into a palace full of danger and secrets, and willingly marry a ruler whose every wife was murdered after one night of marriage. Shahrzad was able to stave off death with her quick wits and judicious telling of stories, and got to the heart of the mystery that was causing the deaths of all the women who came before her. In The Rose and the Dagger, she’s left the palace, hiding out in the desert with her family, childhood sweetheart, and the burgeoning rebellion against her husband’s rule. There are lots of fabulous touches: flying carpets, dragons, and a soul-sucking book of magic that quite literally possesses its user, but most satisfying for me were the strong friendships between female characters with very different personalities, and a conclusion to the rebellion, simmering political tensions and supernatural threats which was delivered by a mixture of chutzpah, alliance between multiple women, and the pooling of very different kinds of strengths.

Enjoyment of this series is going to depend on your ability to deal with the fact that it is a YA romance retelling of the 1001 Nights played fairly straight. The central romance is between Shahrzad and her murderous husband Khalid, and although Ahdieh gives a fairly convincing reason for Khalid’s murder of a series of teenage girls and women (it’s not the reason in the original tale), it may not be enough to get beyond some readers’ ‘cool motive, still murder’ reaction to this.

Cover-Sorrow's Knot

Sorrow’s Knot by Erin Bow is a much calmer, quieter affair. This book was recommended and lent to me by Ana, who described it as being very evocative of Ursula Le Guin’s Annals of the Western Shore series. This is a very apt comparison: one of the most striking elements of Le Guin’s writing is her ability to imbue the simple, ordinary work of everyday life with a sense of power and profundity, and Sorrow’s Knot certainly possesses this quality. Although Bow’s work is set in a secondary world, she has drawn on the histories and cultures of a variety of Native peoples of North America to create a matriarchal society which places great importance on vocation, and the interdependent nature of everyone’s life’s work. No one calling is placed above another — storytellers, hunters, healers and gatherers are all seen as vital and necessary — but binders, who repel and contain the dead by knotting cords, are in great demand. This is a world in which the dead rest uneasily next to the living, and are always threatening to break through and overwhelm the fragile stability of the waking world. The protagonist, Otter, is the daughter of a binder, and always thought she’d follow her mother’s footsteps, binding the dead to keep them at bay, and serving as the last line of defence for her community, but with things carrying on much as they had done for living memory. However, simmering tensions and longstanding problems with how her community have handled their relationship with the past, and with the dead have finally bubbled over, and Otter and her friends find themselves clashing with a leadership whose desire to preserve the status quo has put everyone at risk. Otter and her friends must undertake a dangerous journey into exile — a journey which also takes them back to the source of all their stories and leads them to question the central assumptions that underpin their society.

I keep coming back to the word ‘quiet’ to describe Sorrow’s Knot, because it takes a subtler, more roundabout route to make its many points than many bellowing, blustering stories of dystopia and rebellion. That’s not to say I dislike the bellowing: the other two books reviewed here certainly could be described as such, and I thoroughly enjoyed them. It’s just that there can be a certain kind of pleasure in a book that drops its themes like stones into still water, and lets them reverberate out like ripples, quietly and indirectly, but nonetheless powerfully.

Cover - Song Rising

The Song Rising, the third in Samantha Shannon’s dystopian Bone Season series, is a much louder book. It picks up a few seconds from the cliffhanger where its predecessor, The Mime Order, left off, and takes the reader on a journey at breakneck speed through the underworld of Shannon’s imagined London, and onward to an almost post-apocalyptic Manchester and Edinburgh. Shannon’s dystopian series — which now consists of three of a projected seven books — imagines a world where a totalitarian government suppresses any instances of paranormal ability with brutal efficiency, and where this government is merely the puppet of the Rephaim, a supernatural race of immortal giants. Its protagonist, Paige Mahoney, has survived a Rephaite-run penal colony for humans with supernatural abilities (known as voyants, short for clairvoyants), and come out on top of the power struggles to control the Unnatural Assembly, the semi-criminal syndicate of voyants living under the noses of the authorities in London. The previous syndicate leadership was content to look the other way when it came to government brutality: as long as they could survive undetected and eke out a living through supernatural crime, protection rackets and grey marketeering, they were content to accept the injustices of a totalitarian regime that viewed them as an unnatural cancer deserving death on sight. Paige, however, understands that this state of affairs may not last forever: the government has been working on technology to scan for and identify voyants, so their days of hiding in plain sight are numbered. For her, revolution is the only option. However, she soon comes to realise that marshalling the various voyant factions and rebel Rephaite allies with their own agenda towards a common, revolutionary goal, and managing the inevitable clashes of personality that ensue isn’t as easy as making inspiring speeches about hope and rebellion. There’s a lot of hiding in dank sewer tunnels under London, tolerating unsettling allies, and bargaining, sacrifice and compromise for the cause.

The two elements that initially drew me to this series of books were its wonderfully evocative dystopian London (and many digressions into less travelled corners of London’s history and geography), and its nuanced exploration of relationships between mortal and immortal characters. Both are very much present in The Song Rising, although the book’s detours into Manchester and Edinburgh represent a welcome expansion of Shannon’s alternative version of our world. Likewise, the evolution of Paige’s relationship with the Rephaite, Warden, is handled with care and complexity. But it’s the book’s description of a burgeoning rebellion that makes the greatest impression. Samantha Shannon’s pointed dedication of the novel to ‘the silenced’ is utterly appropriate. In these dangerous and frightening political times, The Song Rising gives the dispossessed a voice.

Our hearts beat – control them! October 14, 2016

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A Torch Against the Night, the follow up to Sabaa Tahir’s YA epic fantasy An Ember in the Ashes, certainly puts its readers through the emotional wringer. Tahir’s world is one whose ordinary inhabitants suffer under the constant oppression of an occupying force: the military and rulers (the two are in many ways one and the same) of the Martial Empire. In creating her Martial oppressors, Tahir drew heavily on Rome, while her Scholar and Tribespeople underclass have cultures, mythologies and folklore modelled on the Middle East. It’s an excellent combination. The power of the Martial Empire is not absolute, and the cracks — a burgeoning resistance movement, dissent in the military ranks, a priestly class apparently following its own agenda, and conflicts breaking out among its ruling families — were already apparent in An Ember in the Ashes. Into this volatile mix stepped two characters: Laia, a terrified, traumatised Scholar girl who took on a dangerous spying role in exchange for the resistance movement saving her imprisoned brother, and Elias, the abused, unwanted son of the Commandant of the Martial Empire’s Blackcliff military training academy. Both were self-sacrificing beyond reason, and both were, in their own ways, being treated as weapons to be wielded by the people who controlled them: the Blackcliff hierarchy in Elias’ case, the resistance in Laia’s. Over the course of the book, the pair struggled to break free from the tense, terrifying control others had over them, and realised that their combined strength and differing perspectives gave them something they lacked when alone: hope, and a chance to change the world. Both had conflicting loyalties — Elias to the other Blackcliff trainees next to whom he’d grown up, above all the patrician, loyal, perfect soldier Helene Aquilla (the sole female Blackcliff warrior in his cohort), Laia to her network of resistance fighters and the ragged band of servants she drew into her orbit while spying in Blackcliff.

The tragedy of both characters — and one which Tahir throws into sharp perspective in A Torch Against the Night — is that they are naturally emotionally expressive, compassionate people, with an intense love for others, but are led to believe that they must stamp out these extremities of emotion — above all, their growing love for one another — for the good of the political cause. Both push their personal feelings aside because they believe their energies must be invested in the task at hand: freeing Laia’s brother from prison, saving the fugitive Scholars from genocide, and overthrowing the might of the Martial Empire. What they fail to understand is that they were drawn to such tasks because of their deep love and sense of responsibility for other people; their emotions give them power, and their love for each other is a source of strength, not a hindrance. Over the course of the novel, their empathy and selflessness is contrasted repeatedly with the actions of cruel, selfish and self-centred people, while the growing group of people from many different backgrounds who help and support them reflects their ability to lead by inspiration and hope, rather than by force and fear.

Where An Ember in the Ashes was claustrophobic — its action confined, for the most part, to the narrow corridors and networks of rooms and tunnels of the Blackcliff Academy and the complicated political machinations going on within — A Torch Against the Night is sweeping in scale, as Laia, Elias and their shifting network of friends, allies and antagonists become caught up in the broader political and military tensions of the region. For this reason, Tahir’s decision to expand her number of point-of-view characters to three, giving us Helene’s perspective as well as Elias and Laia’s, is welcome. While Elias and Laia’s journey takes place among wandering Tribespeople and fugitive scholars fleeing Martial persecution, Helene gives us eyes on the imperial court — on the upper echelons of Martial might, and on new emperor Marcus’s disastrous and dictatorial decisions. Helene’s story is equally tragic: she was brought up to be a loyal soldier of the Empire, assured that her loyalty (even in the face of acts of barbarism) would save the entire world’s existence, and that she must put aside all personal desire and be a dutiful servant to the Empire, no matter how cruel and damaging or downright irrational the actions of its emperor.

cover-laia_jaybendt

Artwork of Laia by Jay Bendt.

If all this sounds a little bit grim, rest assured that there is hoping shining out amid all the darkness. Although Tahir’s characters include a lot of soldiers and warriors, it is in the character of Laia that the novel makes its strongest statement: there are many different kinds of strength, and the most powerful of all is the ability to endure, to be frightened, to be forced to make bargains and compromises, and to come out with the capacity to love, to feel empathy and kindness intact. Where Laia lacks physical strength she makes up for it in endurance, the ability to forge clever alliances and offer hope for other people, and a kind of moral courage that illuminates and inspires. She’s one of my favourite YA heroines, and I look forward to seeing where her adventures take her, Elias, Helene and the other characters in the final two books of Tahir’s series.

Books for joy September 18, 2016

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, fangirl, reviews, Uncategorized.
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My recent reading has made me so happy that I’ve decided to try out something new with my reviews: a semi-regular category, books that make me joyful and that I want to praise to the skies. This first post of this kind covers three books which really spoke to me, and that I cannot recommend enough.

The Olive Conspiracy is the fourth novel in Shira Glassman’s wonderful Mangoverse series (there are also two short story collections set in the same universe), which follows the adventures of Queen Shulamit, her partner Aviva, and their ever-expanding found family of kind-hearted misfits, as they undertake the business of ruling Shulamit’s tropical kingdom of Perach. This fourth book sees Shulamit and co dealing with an international conspiracy to hamper the agriculture (and thus economy) of Perach, bringing Shulamit back in contact with her first love, Crown Princess Carolina of the neighbouring kingdom of Imbrio.

There’s so much to love about this book, and the series as a whole. Perach is a fantasy Jewish kingdom coexisting in a magical, medieval inflected world with other, non-Jewish nations (such as Imbrio). Almost all of the major characters are gay, lesbian or bisexual, in loving relationships supported by their friends, families and community, and there are also several transgender secondary or tertiary characters, and although their stories are not without conflict, there is never any threat of a tragic or unhappy ending. But what really makes these books great for me is their emphasis on kindness, cooperation, and non-violent solutions to thorny problems. The Mangoverse books are proof that in the hands of the right author, a compelling story about fundamentally decent people is possible. That they’re also filled with loving, detailed descriptions of mouthwatering food is just an added bonus!

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers shares a few similarities to Glassman’s work. It, too, is the story of a found family of oddballs, who are for the most part kind and good people seeking to avoid conflict and bloodshed, and food also features heavily. However, it’s set in the distant future, on a spaceship which is home to a multispecies crew whose job it is to create the hyperspace tunnels that make fast, convenient space travel possible for their fellow inhabitants of the skies. If you liked Firefly, but found yourself frustrated with the limitations of the future it imagined (a Chinese-inflected future with no visible Chinese characters; misogyny and other contemporary problems still present centuries into the future, and so on), this may be the book for you.

Chambers has imagined a future that is truly welcoming to all, in which human beings are just one species among many other sentient cultures of the universe, all of whom have organised themselves into a vast, intergalactic United Nations of sorts. The humans are very much the junior partners in this enterprise – late arrivals who were only taken in out of pity after half the inhabitants of Earth fled to Mars (the wealthy, who could afford to get out) and the other half took to the skies in a suicidal act of desperation as the planet became utterly uninhabitable. While it should be sobering to read of an all-too-plausible future in which we have rendered Earth utterly inhospitable to life, it’s oddly comforting to imagine a time when humans are only a tiny, insignificant fraction of the crowded skies of a vast, inhabitable universe. It’s as if the insignificance and miraculous survival of the human beings of Chambers’ novel caused them to grow out of the horrors that currently plague us: selfishness, lack of forward thinking, and rapacious, destructive greed. Humans in this book are more humble, and, like all the sentient beings in their universe, more open and understanding of difference. It’s more a character-driven story: don’t read it for the plot, which is as meandering and episodic as the journey of the spaceship its characters call home, but it’s as comforting and welcoming as a warm blanket, drawing you in to a hopeful and reassuring future.

The final book reviewed here, Kate Elliott’s Poisoned Blade, is less cozy and consoling than the first two — Elliott certainly knows how to put her characters through the emotional wringer — but it too brought me great joy. It’s the follow-up to Court of Fives, Elliott’s first foray into young-adult literature, which I reviewed here. Poisoned Blade sees Jessamy and her sisters following dangerous and different roads to ensure their family’s survival. Their individual stories and struggles intertwine with the revolution that is simmering below the surface of their profoundly unequal society, as well as with the broader political conflicts threatening their country.

Kate Elliott is one of my favourite writers of stories of girls and women, because she always depicts many different types of female characters, with nary a stock trope in sight. Poisoned Blade is no different: we’ve got Jessamy, who is a competitive and talented sports player, confident in her physical abilities but out of her depth in challenges that require subterfuge, subtlety or verbal persuasion. Her sister Amaya and her friend (and lover) Denya are much better at handling the delicate dangers that take place in the homes of the wealthy and privileged, and while they — like all women in their society, particularly the lower class (like Denya) and the Efean Commoners (those who, like Amaya, Jessamy and their mother and sisters, descend from the original inhabitants of their land who were conquered by the Patrons who rule them) — lack overt and political power, they are adept at exercising power indirectly and carving out a place of relative safety for themselves. There are so many other types of women in this book, but I’d like to draw particular attention to Amaya, Jessamy and their siblings’ wonderful mother, who is a character after my own heart: the sort of woman whose strength lies in her ability to empathise with and care for others, and who quietly does the vitally important work of forging alliances, building connections, and sustaining others. The world of Poisoned Blade is deeply hostile to women, and Elliott doesn’t shy away from that, but she also emphasises the many important relationships women and girls form in spite of that, and the strength that they draw from these connections. There are also giant, robot spiders, a growing revolution led by the dispossessed, and intense competitions in a sport that involves racing through a massive, terrifying obstacle course. What more could you want?

Divided cities April 28, 2016

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The three YA novels I review here are all set in cities which are, in one way or another, divided, featuring state-sanctioned inequality so extreme that revolution needs only a tiny spark to set it off. Characters in all three books reach out across the divide, fighting in their own ways for justice, equality, or just the chance to carve out a tiny space of safety for themselves.

Sarah Rees Brennan is nothing if not ambitious. Her latest work, Tell the Wind and Fire reimagines Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities as an urban fantasy romance involving doppelgängers, a complicated magical system, and, of course, revolution. Instead of the ‘two cities’ of Dickens’ story, Tell the Wind and Fire is set in a New York divided into ‘Light’ and ‘Dark’ cities, which exist in parallel, mirror images of glittering privilege and violently enforced dispossession. Rees Brennan’s Lucie Manette is a teenage magic wielder who grew up in the Dark cities, but was brought to the Light, where she is treated as something of a symbol and a trophy, the girlfriend of the cherished son of the Light city’s ruling family. This ruling dynasty’s ruthless maintenance of its own power is matched only by its complicated, hypocritical secrets. Rees Brennan is great at showing the cruelty and injustice that keeps her imagined New York divided, and doesn’t shy away from placing the blame entirely at the feet of its glittering Light elite, who care little that their enormous wealth is built on suffering. As revolution smoulders, Lucie attempts to navigate the treacherous political waters, torn between individual loyalty to those she loves – in both Light and Dark New York – and her moral outrage at the injustice of her society. Lucie is well aware of her power as a symbol – a borrowed power that is dependent on her never, ever speaking for herself – and has a realistic sense of this power’s limits. Lucie’s sharp sense of self-preservation, honed through years living in the downtrodden Dark city and among the capricious powerbrokers of the Light, is one of the strongest elements of this book, and she is a character with whom I very much enjoyed spending time.

Rather less satisfying for me were the wider character dynamics of Tell the Wind and Fire. In previous works, characterisation has been Sarah Rees Brennan’s strong point, and I’ve come to look forward to her books for their fantastic found families – collections of odd, misfit characters thrown together by circumstance, who’ll protect each other fiercely against the cruelties and dangers of the world. Perhaps because it was a standalone book rather than a trilogy, with less time to develop secondary characters, I found this element somewhat lacking in Tell the Wind and Fire, and missed it. Other than that, however, the book was an enjoyable read, although the twists of the plot will be unsurprising to those already familiar with A Tale of Two Cities.

Sabaa Tahir’s debut novel An Ember in the Ashes is a claustrophobic fantasy romance set in a city under occupation. The Martial Empire enforces its rule with military might and legalised discrimination; the Scholars, formerly the elite, are forbidden to learn to read, and are either enslaved or forced to live in precarious poverty. The novel is told from alternate viewpoints – that of Laia, a young Scholar girl who accepts a dangerous spying mission at the heart of the Martial administration as a slave to its ruthless military leader, and Elias, a Martial boy training to be the empire’s most lethal warrior (more weapon than human being), but secretly attempting to escape his abusive training. Tahir does an excellent job of making all parts of her stratified city – from the brutal Blackcliff Academy where Elias trains and Laia spies, to the twisting alleyways where Scholars make their homes and the resistance plots the Martial Empire’s demise – come alive, always emphasising the rampant inequality and the violence with which it is maintained. While I slightly preferred Laia as a viewpoint character, both protagonists are carefully drawn, and their respective fears, hopes and motivations are well balanced. I particularly like it when characters in this kind of set up have an internal struggle between genuine and well-justified terror at the life-threatening situations in which they find themselves, and their desire to transform their society into a more just and equal place. I like it when it forces them to make compromises, bargains, and small, short-term sacrifices of principle, and I very much appreciated that this was the case with Laia. An Ember in the Ashes ends on quite the cliffhanger, so I’m relieved to see that the sequel will be published in August.

Court of Fives, the first in a YA series by Kate Elliott, is much subtler than the previous two books reviewed here in its exploration of power, privilege, and their corrosive effect on societies and individuals. Its setting is inspired by Ptolemaic Egypt, with divisions between the ruling Patrons and ruled Commoners more fluid than the letter of the law would suggest. Patrons cannot marry Commoners – but they can form relationships, as is the case in the family of protagonist Jessamy, whose father is a Patron and mother is a Commoner. Similarly, certain routes to advancement are barred to Commoners – but they can gain prestige and acclaim as talented players of Fives, the popular sport beloved by Patrons and Commoners alike, and played by both. But – as is the case with all unequal societies – there are hidden complications and unwritten rules that slowly become part of the social structure, understood by all, but difficult to live with. Jessamy and her sisters occupy an uneasy space between Patron and Commoner worlds, both exoticised and scorned. They are all painfully aware that their fate – and fate of their family – is dependent on their making good marriages with Patron men. Their mother is a hindrance to their father’s career, and, after a series misfortunes, it becomes clear that their parents’ apparent love match is a more fragile thing, vulnerable to the demands of politics and social mobility. Playing Fives – formerly an escape for Jessamy – becomes a deadly necessity, as the fate of her entire family depends on her success on the court.

There are echoes in Court of Fives of Little Women, but Elliott’s refusal to let the father character off the hook is a breath of fresh air to me, as someone who always found Alcott’s depiction of Mr March too close to hagiography. Here, there is an acknowledgement that the actions of men in patriarchal societies can have appalling consequences for the women around them, that such men are very often ignorant of, and unmoved by, the effects their actions have on the women in their lives, and, most importantly, that even in patriarchal societies, women and girls have lives and relationships and stories independent of the husbands and fathers whose actions circumscribe their existence. Throw in a brilliantly depicted set of sisters – each with her own personality and dreams – and you have everything I could possibly want in a Kate Elliott book.

Our linkpost got fractured in the echo and the sway November 26, 2015

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This week’s post is a day early, as I’m going to be in London tomorrow and away from a computer. It’s also going to be fairly Jessica Jones heavy, but I will separate those links off from everything else.

Building on the ongoing conversation about conventions’ failure to provide a safe and accessible experience for disabled attendees, Mary Robinette Kowal has started a SFF convention accessibility pledge, which I encourage everyone who’s likely to attend a convention to sign.

These two posts by Rose Lemberg on the experiences of disabled fans, and the dismissal of their concerns and requests for accommodations and accessibility, are really important, and I encourage you to read them.

Michelle Vider writes: Station Eleven is a love letter to technology, one I never could have written myself.

Isabel Yap put together a fantastic collection of recommendations of Filipina poets, many of whom were new to me. I highly recommend reading their work.

Here’s Kate Elliott on ’10 Fantasy Novels Whose Depiction of Women Did Not Make Me Want to Smash Things’.

Kate Elliott also dropped by the Fangirl Happy Hour podcast.

This recent Galactic Suburbia podcast was also great.

More Isobelle Carmody:

Of the many readers Carmody has met, some have made lasting impressions. The young woman who established the fan site obernewtyn.net has become a close friend. Another has proved a sharp-eyed editor for Carmody’s unpublished books. Many have said they feel that the conclusion of The Obernewtyn Chronicles marks the end of their childhood.

Sophia McDougall’s post on trigger/content warnings said a lot of things that I’ve been trying to say on the matter for a while. Needless to say, content warning for discussion of abuse.

I loved this article about the depiction of early motherhood on Jane the Virgin

Phoebe Robinson talks about ‘How Daria Shaped A Generation of Women (Particularly This Black One)’.

I loved this photoshoot, in which five authors dressed up as their favourite fictional characters.

There are new reviews up on Those Who Run With Wolves. Aliette de Bodard reviewed Black Wolves by Kate Elliott. I reviewed Serpentine by Cindy Pon.

Jessica Jones links

I’m somewhat astonished by the intensity of my reaction to, and identification with, this show, but it’s clear that I’m not alone in this.

‘Marvel’s Newest Show Makes Surviving Trauma A Superpower’ goes a long way toward explaining the strength of my feelings about this show.

Jessica Jones is a primer on gaslighting, and how to protect yourself against it. Oh, my heart.

Renay of Ladybusiness and Ana of Booksmugglers discussed it on Twitter, and Charles Tan made a Storify of their conversation.

These are the things I would do for linkpost November 13, 2015

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This post is going to be a bit Isobelle Carmody-heavy. The final Obernewtyn book came out, and I am not okay.

Monica Tan interviews Carmody in The Guardian:

Elspeth’s question is how to exist in the world, to be what she is and to find people who would allow her to be what she is. I think it’s everybody’s question to find a place in the world and to find your tribe, but the world itself has to find a way to let groups of people exist with one another.

Fran Kelly interviewed Carmody on Radio National:

[Readers write to me saying] they feel they survived childhood because of those books.

I appreciated this post by Jill S, ‘Dragons and poison chalices’:

I’m gathering my community of support. We are small but mighty. And this community reminds me daily that there are people in the world who can support my dreams and don’t feel threatened by them. So when you find someone who cheers you on, wholeheartedly, without fear that you are going to diminish them, cling tight.

I highly recommend ‘A Cup of Salt Tears’, a new-to-me short story by Isabel Yap.

I appreciate the work that Natalie Luhrs does in keeping records, bearing witness, and holding people to account. This report on the recent World Fantasy Convention was excellent:

In my experience, when many con-runners talk about best practices, what they mean is the way it’s always been done–and the way they’re most comfortable doing it.

Mari Ness’ post about problems with accessibility at the con (namely, that it was abysmal) is also an important read:

Because, unfortunately, this is not the first disability/accessibility problem I have had with conventions, or the first time a convention has asked/agreed to have me on programming and then failed to have a ramp that allows me to access the stage. At least in this case it wasn’t a Disability in Science Fiction panel that, incredibly enough, lacked a ramp, but against that, in this case, the conrunners were aware I was coming, were aware that I use a wheelchair, had spoken to me prior to the convention and had assured me that the convention would be fully accessible, and put me on panels with stages but no ramp.

Aliette de Bodard offers her thoughts on the (long overdue) decision to replace the WFA trophies with something other than Lovecraft’s head:

It’s not that I think Lovecraft should be forever cast beyond the pale of acceptable. I mean, come on, genre has had plenty of people who were, er, not shining examples of mankind, and I personally feel like the binary of “this person was a genius and can do no wrong/this person is a racist and can therefore do nothing of worth” doesn’t really make for constructive discussion. (but see above for the “we should give everything a fair chance” fallacy. I’m personally not particularly inclined to give reading time or space to a man who thought I was an abomination, and I will side-eye you quite a bit if you insist I should). It’s more that… these are the World Fantasy Awards. They’re not the H.P. Lovecraft Awards, so there’s no particular reason for him to be associated with them: doing so just creates extra awkwardness.

And on a much lighter note, this story is just the most Australian thing ever: paramedics in Queensland have stopped asking patients the name of the prime minister, because nobody can keep track.

“We would ask patients that question because it gave us an idea of their conscious level and ability to recall events,” Mr Abood said. “But the country’s prime ministers are changing so often, it’s no longer a good indication of their mental status.”

Mr Abood once asked a patient to name the prime minister, only to be told: “I haven’t watched the news today.”

I had a good laugh at that.