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Pressing on boundaries June 2, 2018

Posted by dolorosa12 in blogging, books, reviews.
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I normally avoid reading historical fiction (whether told straight, or with fantasy elements added) set in early medieval Britain or Ireland. It’s too hard to switch off my medievalist brain and nitpick every inaccuracy or tired cliché. Although there are some works set in this time I enjoy, it’s generally a time period and genre I approach with caution. This may explain why it took me so long to get to Hild, Nicola Griffith’s astonishing, complex, and beautifully crafted novel about Hild, a seventh-century Anglo-Saxon princess who became the founding abbess of Whitby and was later made a saint (if a school, college, or church in the UK is named St Hilda’s, it’s likely named after her). As with many figures living in this time of history, contemporary written records about Hild are lacking, but Griffith has done a wonderful job of filling in the blanks in a way that is both plausible and engaging.

The Britain of Griffith’s novel is a tumultuous place of shifting allegiances, diplomatic marriages of convenience, fluid boundaries, and fast-paced political, religious and cultural change that is leaving its inhabitants disoriented and uncertain. Amidst all this turmoil is Hild — a child at the novel’s beginning, an older teenager by its close — whose early life is spent in exile, followed by a period with her mother and sister at her uncle’s court. Her mother’s ambition is to be a powerbroker behind the throne, and she uses all the tools at her disposal, including roping her daughters into her schemes, teaching them to see the connections, tensions and patterns between the powerful people around them, and to subtly influence the political direction of their kingdom without the men in power perceiving it. Hild finds this at once a talent that comes naturally to her, and a frightening, sometimes crushing burden. Without being able to command and control people directly, she is essentially unable to put a halt to actions and choices she feels will cause harm and destruction, while at the same time she feels responsible for decisions she has influenced indirectly. Ever since her birth, Hild’s mother has encouraged an air of supernatural power around her daughter, creating a legend that turns Hild into a seer who can predict the future, and it’s this visionary role that allows her to speak freely in contexts where women’s voices would normally be unwelcome, hiding her political manoeuvring in a cloud of prophetic symbolism. The problem with being a prophet is that people expect your predictions to come true, which is an additional weight on Hild’s shoulders.

Cover - Hild

Where Griffith really succeeds is in her depiction of women’s lives — particularly the parts of those lives that happen out of the view of men. Hild abounds with such scenes: women discussing pregnancy, abortion and childbirth in whispers in a bedroom, women spinning and weaving in a corner of the hall, women out herding animals, women subtly directing the political events of their day. It’s a particular breath of fresh air to see the smaller, quieter moments treated with as much seriousness and granted as much importance as the sorts of things that are normally perceived to have had real historical impact. Thus, a small girl wearing heavy, ornate jewellery and carrying a cup of mead around the hall is shown to have as much, if not more, political significance as a battle, and is carried out with a similar level of tactical planning.

The world of Hild is visceral, and Griffith revels in the muck and dirt of it, bringing readers with her into muddy fields, smelly cowsheds, rooms where women’s hands are soft with lanolin as they spin wool, and halls sharp with the tang of strong mead. One of the most striking and memorable scenes to me involves a group of farm workers constructing a hedgerow, piling mounds of earth between stones, and weaving bushes fragrant with the scent of hawthorn into the hedge, so that the whole construction is a living, breathing thing. The sheer effort involved, the cooperative labour, and the sense of work well done are all conveyed with clarity and strength. It’s just one of many such moments in the book — bringing things back down to earth, and imbuing the ordinary work of everyday life with a luminous sense of mystery and power. This quality reminded me of other books that have been formative and important to me — Ursula Le Guin’s fantasy novels, the work of Monica Furlong (set in a very similar time period, and with a similar focus on ‘women’s work’), and, more recently, the epic fantasy of Kate Elliott. It’s something I’m always glad to see in fiction, and I can only hope that Griffith’s follow up to Hild continues to retain this same element.

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Authorities and adaptations May 17, 2018

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The three works reviewed here share two common elements: they are broadly concerned with families – particularly the relationships between women and girls within families – and they are adaptations or reinterpretations of prexisting stories. One is a feminist retelling of a fairy tale, the other takes on a Shakespearean tragedy, and the third reimagines Sherlock Holmes and John Watson as citizens of a vast, space-faring civilisation of the future.

Aliette de Bodard’s novella ‘The Tea Master and the Detective’ is a return to her Xuya universe, the setting of much of her short fiction, in which sentient spaceships known as mindships transport human beings across the vastness of the universe, and whose history and culture is heavily inspired by those of Vietnam. The Xuya stories share a common setting, but most can be read in isolation, as is the case for ‘The Tea Master and the Detective’. In this work, Conan Doyle’s Watson becomes The Shadow’s Child, a traumatised war veteran mindship who now makes her living creating the blends of tea that enable human beings to travel through deep space, while Sherlock Holmes is Long Chau, an abrasive genuis with secrets of her own. Every interaction of the pair is a joy to read, and in flipping the genders of Conan Doyle’s original pair, de Bodard has given readers a great gift: a female character who is allowed to be traumatised and grieving, and a woman who is allowed to be intellectually brilliant, sharp, and occasionally uncaring about the effect her behaviour is having on others, without condemnation or judgement. As the pair investigate the mystery at the heart of the story, the reasons for their respective emotional states are revealed, with skill and sensitivity. ‘The Tea Master and the Detective’ features all the great little touches I’ve come to expect from de Bodard’s fiction: lovingly described food and tea blends, the recognition that food and meal traditions are a significant element of worldbuilding, an emphasis on family that goes beyond the typical Western nuclear family triad of mother, father and child, and the highlighting of the importance of the work of community-building, supporting, and sustaining. I doubt this will be her final foray into the Xuya universe, but I very much hope it’s not the last time we see these particular characters.

cover-tea-master.jpg

The Surface Breaks is a feminist retelling of The Little Mermaid which seems drawn in equal parts from Hans Christian Andersen and Disney. While not exactly subtle, Louise O’Neill’s YA novel is certainly satisfying to read, if only because the escapism of seeing a group of teenage girls (or in this case, mermaids) triumph over the constraints — with obvious real-world parallels — that bind them is its own reward. O’Neill’s little mermaid is Muirgen, the youngest daughter of the abusive, tyrannical ruler of an underwater kingdom. The twin pillars propping up his rule are lies about its recent history, and a rigid, hierarchical, highly misogynistic social structure. Mermaids are to remain passive, decorative and pliant, adhering to a rigid standard of beauty, seen but not heard, leaving all the functions deemed powerful and important to the men. Because he’s smart enough to realise that his daughters, if united, could challenge his authority, Muirgen’s father plays his them off against each other, forcing them to compete for scraps of love and agency so that they’re kept in a state of almost perpetual mistrust and animosity. Muirgen daydreams of the human world above the surface, fantasising that it offers more opportunities and freedom to its daughters. However, when the chance to escape there arises, Muirgen’s illusions are brutally shattered. Rendered literally voiceless as part of the deal that gives her human legs, Muirgen is forced to confront the fact that although twenty-first century human sexism is more subtle, women are still constrained, dismissed, devalued and abused in myriad ways. Rather than leave her little mermaid with the two terrible choices of instant fairytale love-at-first-sight or annihilation, O’Neill presents Muirgen with a third option: support and believe women, make common cause with her sisters, and look unflinchingly at the flimsiness of the constraints with which the men in their lives have bound them. It is only this sisterhood that will save them, and restore their agency and voice.

Cover - Surface Breaks

In her King Lear retelling, The Queens of Innis Lear, Tessa Gratton is also deeply concerned with issues of female agency and voice. Although in some ways this is the most straightforward adaptation reviewed here — Gratton has kept most of the original characters and plot structure intact — it fleshes this out with a deep focus on its characters’ psychological motivations. Thus it is more than sheer acquisitive envy that motivates Ban, Gratton’s analogue to the illegitimate Edmund, while the lingering grief at their mother’s death (and their suspicions about their father’s role in it) gives greater substance to Lear’s older daughters’ grievances against him. The Innis Lear of Gratton’s novel is a kingdom deeply at war with itself, with tensions — between worship of nature and its king’s worship of the stars, between its ageing king and his three daughters and their very different types of power, and between its fractious nobles and the powerful kingdoms that surround it — thinly papered over and obscured beneath a fog of secrets and unsayable truths. If I had one quibble, it would be that there are perhaps too many point-of-view characters — although this does allow Gratton to focus on different characters’ motivations while enabling her to keep these motivations secret from the other characters, to devastating effect. A lot of the exquisite pain of The Queens of Innis Lear lies in its tragic inevitability, and knowing, as a reader, what drives certain characters to make the choices they do.

Cover - Queens of Innis Lear

There are so many moments of quiet devastation: the moment when Elia, Gratton’s Cordelia analogue, realises she’s so passive and reactive that people think of her as a sort of buffer, the calm shore against which crash the waves of other people’s emotions, selfishness, and sheer greedy need, or the tragedy of Ban, who is so accustomed to being treated not like a person but rather as a tool or weapon to be wielded that he gives his devoted loyalty to the first person who asks to use him so, rather than demanding or assuming. But the greatest emotional weight lies in the fraught, tense relationship between Lear’s three daughters, who would be better served with trust, support and love, but whose father’s actions have made such things impossible. As everything hurtles towards its destructive conclusion, The Queens of Innis Lear makes a plea for balance and reconciliation. The book is not telling us to focus on the earth beneath our feet at the expense of the stars in the sky, but rather to focus on the people around us. Only then will we strike the right balance between earthly practicalities and starry contemplation, and only then will tragedy be averted.

A beehive in my heart March 3, 2018

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Back in the February of 2010, Amal El-Mohtar embarked on an ambitious, intriguing literary project: to taste twenty-eight different kinds of honey, and create a piece of writing in response to each honey tasted. The result was The Honey Month, a collection of poetry, prose-poetry and microfiction, which is in turns sharp and complex, and sweet and direct, depending on the flavours and scents of the honey that has inspired it.

Cover-The Honey Month

The collection is gorgeous: a feast for the senses, full of lively, vivid observations. El-Mohtar clearly took care to note each honey’s effects on all the senses — not just taste, but smell, feel and sight also (although if she noted the sound of the honey I confess I missed it), and these are conveyed with immediacy in the resulting poems and pieces of prose. Each work is as distinctive as the spoonful of honey that inspired it, but a few common thematic threads emerge: longing, beauty, growth, magic (there are a lot of allusions to British folktales about fairies and the otherworld in particularly), and (lost) connections. In some ways it’s also very much an exploration of what it is to be a young woman, and I could relate a lot to the almost mythical, fairytale quality with which El-Mohtar imbued this stage of life, in which the world offers equal parts promise and danger. My favourite works in the collection were probably those set in and around Devon and Cornwall, which brilliantly captured the eerie, wild landscape of that part of the world.

If I had been reading the collection properly, I would have limited myself to a one piece of writing a day, and stretched out my reading over the entire month of February, letting it illuminate and add warmth and flavour to the cold tail-end of the northern winter. However, I didn’t have the patience for that, and instead swallowed the book whole, reading it in snatches during a day out in London — some on the train, some tucked up in a Swedish bakery that smelled of cinnamon and caraway seeds, and some in a tea shop which sold cakes and scones the size of your head and tea in giant, mismatched teapots, and was inhabited by several sleepy, friendly cats. I suppose in some ways this was an appropriate way to read the book: during a day that felt like it existed outside time, and whose experiences played on my senses, bright and vivid amid the grey London winter.

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.

Shaped by the clearest blue October 1, 2017

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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

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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

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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

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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?