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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?

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.

Book reviews in brief September 10, 2015

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I read many fabulous books over the past (northern) summer. These three were probably my favourites.

Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear

I feel like the word ‘romp’ is sometimes overused, but in this case, it’s entirely appropriate. Karen Memory is a standalone novel following the adventures of its titular heroine, who works in a brothel in a fictional, steampunk city in nineteenth-century America. It’s a cheerfully anarchic place, where people’s relationship with the law is complicated, and where compromise, barter, and exchange are necessary in order to survive. Karen, along with the other sex workers at her brothel and various friends, lovers and allies, become caught up in the political intrigue of their town, eventually uncovering a conspiracy of much wider implications. This book was an absolute joy to read. I loved everything about it, from its steampunk setting, to its cast of characters. Karen herself was an enthralling narrator, her perspective a mixture of shrewd cynicism and empathetic kindness. A word of warning: the descriptions of food in this book are many and detailed, so it’s probably wise to read on a full stomach, or with a plate of food to hand!

The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard

This was one of my most anticipated books of 2015. Those of you who have been following this blog for a while know that I’m an absolute sucker for books about fallen angels, particularly if those books focus on the angels’ relationship with, and perception of, human beings, and vice versa. Set in a ruin-filled, post-apocalyptic Paris, House of Shattered Wings didn’t disappoint. De Bodard has created a world in which fallen angels band together in aristocratic Houses, battling for control over the city and its inhabitants, while humans attach themselves to the Houses, exchanging their freedom for patronage and a measure of safety. Conspiracies and intrigue ensue.

One potential weakness in stories that draw on Christian eschatological traditions is that they end up either ignoring or dismissing other religious beliefs altogether, or inadvertently implying that these are secondary to, or superseded by, Christian beliefs. De Bodard avoids falling into this trap, and other religious beliefs, and supernatural figures from non-Christian spiritual traditions site beside those of Christianity and interact with them in various ways. Likewise, France’s colonial legacy, and the dehumanising effect it has on colonised people plays a major role in the story.

Although I would’ve liked to have spent just a bit more time with some characters we only meet briefly (Ninon is a character whose story I would really like to know), The House of Shattered Wings definitely lived up to my expectations, and I’m looking forward to de Bodard’s next works set in this fictional world.

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine

This is a retelling of the fairytale of the Twelve Dancing Princesses, set in Prohibition-era New York. The original twelve princesses are reimagined as twelve spirited sisters, who are barred from leaving the house by their abusive, status-obsessed, miserly father, and sneak out to dance the night away in speakeasies. The network of underground clubs and secret bars – and the people who run it – become a refuge from the oppressive confines of the sisters’ miserable home life, a place where they can dance in joy and freedom.

Having a cast of twelve sisters to juggle could have been difficult to handle, but Valentine manages it deftly, with each sister’s personality sharply realised and vividly distinct. My favourite was Jo, the oldest, nicknamed ‘The General’ by her siblings for her tendency to run their illicit outings like military campaigns, always aware of her sisters’ locations and able to swoop in to protect them or hustle them out of dangerous situations at a minute’s notice.

Fairytale retellings are tricky to do well, but Valentine has created something rich and beautiful out of the bare bones of the original tale, a story that celebrates the strength of sisters and the power of the bonds between them.

Things we lost in the fire May 21, 2015

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I’m normally a very fast reader, but it took me close to two weeks to finish Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, because I had to keep pausing and putting it aside. What it was saying was too overwhelming, too upsetting, and too much to carry. I loved it.

Station Eleven takes a fairly conventional disaster novel trope – a virulent disease wipes out the majority of the world’s population in a very short period of time – and carries it further, imagining how society might reshape itself after complete collapse. Unlike a lot of recent dystopian novels, Station Eleven actually explores what societal collapse, a dramatically reduced population and scarcity of resources would really look like. People’s capacity for violence – sometimes presented as innate and given free rein in dystopian frontier communities – is restricted in that bullets run out so guns become obsolete, let alone more technologically advanced weaponry. As such, violence takes on a more intimate quality: people carry knives, heavy stones, bows and arrows, and tattoo reminders of the murders they’ve committed onto their skin. The world darkens as sources of electricity and other power are shut off, and fuel supplies run out (or too few people survive to be able to extract and distribute petrol), so cars fall silent and the skies are emptied of planes. Within months, people’s worlds become restricted to the distances they can comfortably travel, enforcing a limited existence more akin to that of pre-industrial times.

If that’s not heavy enough, the novel jumps between several different chronologies, so that a strand of it deals with the period just before the outbreak, a second strand follows several characters through the immediate aftermath, and a third deals with the world twenty years on. The focal characters in this third chronology were alive before the collapse, some as small children, others as middle-aged adults, which allows St. John Mandel to devote a significant portion of the novel to exploring ideas of grief, loss, and the effect of memory and the passage of time. Is it better to grow up in a post-apocalyptic world with limited options, but to view this as normal, or better to have had fifty years of full, well-lived life in the twenty-first century, only to have this brutally ripped away and viewed as science fiction by the generations who come after you? Is it fair to teach children born after the outbreak about the old world, when they have no frame of reference for its trappings and will only be angered by the relative limits of their existence (the book mentions, in particular, reduced lifespans)? What is the purpose of preserving artifacts and memories? Who is it serving?

If all this sounds pretty grim, there are moments of light. The world that remains after the outbreak has burnt through it is harsh, but not deliberately brutal. St. John Mandel recognises, as few writers of dystopian fiction seem to, that humanity has survived for so long because human beings are adaptable, and because they cooperate and compromise in order to ensure their own safety and survival. People in Station Eleven adapt. They form scattered communities wherever they wind up when they can’t keep running from the outbreak, in disused shopping centres, in highway petrol stations, in airports surrounded by rusting aeroplanes. They teach their children. They memorise Shakespeare and ransack abandoned houses for musical instruments, and form a band of wandering actors and musicians. In moments particularly moving for me, they set up libraries, and interview whoever passes through their tiny communities, preserving people’s stories because there’s still a sense that history, that stories, that the people behind them matter. They build museums of obsolete artifacts of the old world: driver’s licenses and credit cards and iPhones with cracked screens, and angst about whether these memories are things that should be dwelt upon.

Ultimately, Station Eleven is a beautiful, moving love song to humanity. It imagines a terrifying future, and it shows us how to have the courage to endure it.

‘ “And what would humans be without love?” RARE, said Death.’ March 13, 2015

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, linkpost.
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This week’s linkpost is all Terry Pratchett. I came to his writing later than most, as I was in my early twenties before I read a single word of his. A good friend of mine and I had made a deal: he would watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and I would read Pratchett. I think it was a good deal for both of us. I started with Guards! Guards!, and never looked back. My favourite Pratchett book is Small Gods, for all the qualities that made Pratchett such a powerful writer: warm humour, a perceptive understanding of human nature, an intelligent way with words that included rather than excluded, and a patience with human frailty.

This is a Storify of Pratchett’s last tweets. (Warning: bring tissues.)

Here Nymeth provides her reminiscences at Things Mean A Lot.

Jo Walton recalls her first meeting with Pratchett over at Tor.com.

I also liked this piece by Julie Beck at the Atlantic.

The obituary at the BBC is here.

As usual, xkcd says in a few words what would take me several thousand.

I think, however, that Abi Sutherland says it best:

He saw the monstrosities of our world: economic inequality, racism, sexism, religious bigotry, the abuses of narrative and myth. And he made them irresistibly ludicrous, laying them relentlessly out until their inner absurdity smothered them, until the least bizzare and most reasonable thing in the story was that it took place on a disc resting on the backs of four elephants standing on the shell of a giant space turtle.

He was both wise and kind.

The world could do with a bit more wisdom accompanied by kindness.

If you link me that much you will stick around March 6, 2015

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, films, linkpost, short stories, television.
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I have so many links for you this week! My Twitter feed has been very generous in sharing its fabulous internet finds, and I’ve gathered the best of them to post here.

First up, have a couple of short stories. ‘Translatio Corporis’ by Kat Howard and ‘The Monkey House’ by Tade Thompson absolutely rocked my world. They’re published in Uncanny Magazine and Omenana respectively.

I went on a massive Twitter rant about failures of imagination in historical fantasy novels set in medieval Britain and Ireland, so I found this post on ‘Celtic fantasy’ by Liz Bourke to be very welcome and timely.

Likewise this post by Kate Elliott on writing women characters touched on a lot of things that matter to me in storytelling.

Joanne Harris makes some good points about the economics of literary festivals.

This post by Renay is very perceptive on self-rejection, anthology-curation and the difficulties in amplifying the voices of others.

I found the conversation taking place at the #WritingNewZA hashtag on South African literature really interesting.

Tricia Sullivan writes about the pitfalls of being a mother who writes. (I would say that this potentially applies to primary caregivers of any gender, but there are particularly gendered elements of the problems she’s outlining that lead me to think her emphasis on mothers specifically is correct in this instance.)

Here is a Storify of tweets by Aliette de Bodard about the fallacy of devoting your entire life to writing.

I grew up on Sara Douglass’s books, and while they’re far from perfect, she herself was a really important figure in the history of fantasy literature in Australia. Here, Australian fantasy author Fiona McIntosh remembers her.

I’ve found Abigail Nussbaum’s recent Hugo recommendation posts useful. Here’s the short fiction one, and here’s the one on publishing and fan categories.

I want to see this film!

I’m thoroughly enjoying watching Ana discover the Dark Is Rising sequence over at The Book Smugglers.

This is a good summation of what made Parks and Recreation so great, over The Mary Sue.

Finally, have an Old English text about the wonders of books.

The sun is shining and the sky is clear here in Cambridge. It looks like this weekend is going to be excellent for me, and I hope it is the same for you.

‘Mars is there, waiting to be reached’ March 28, 2014

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‘It’s like Pacific Rim, only with the characters as twelve-year-old girls,’ said my partner, who had snatched up Sophia McDougall’s Mars Evacuees and read it before I had a chance. Coming from him, this was high praise, and I opened the book expecting great things. Be warned, this review contains some minor spoilers.

I wasn’t disappointed. Mars Evacuees is McDougall’s first children’s book, and it is set in a dystopian future in which Earth has been partly colonised by the Morror, an alien people who have transformed the climate to such an extent that it is becoming too cold to support human life. As an endless war rages on, groups of children are being evacuated off-planet to Mars, which has been partially terraformed into a climate that can sustain a human population. Their rescue comes at a price: all evacuees will be trained, and then conscripted into the military and expected to join the fight against the Morror. The narrator, Alice Dare, is the daughter of Stephanie Dare, a famous war hero. Although she struggles with the weight of expectation that this troublesome heritage causes, Alice is an essentially pragmatic child, and she spends most of the story putting any angsty feelings aside to be dealt with at a later, more convenient time. This is because she is preoccupied for most of Mars Evacuees with staying alive.

Although the colony on Mars seems at first to be a utopian safe haven, in which children from every corner of the world are given a multilingual education in everything from algebra to flying spaceships, its peace is shattered when all the adults disappear. At this point, schoolyard politics come into play: the strongest, meanest bullies take control, claiming most of the food supplies and the best quarters, terrorising the other children into submission. Alice and her friends – quirky, introverted Josephine, outgoing Carl and his younger brother Noel, along with one of the robots from the Martian colony – set out to find help. What they discover on their journey allows them to save not only the Martian colony, but also Earth itself.

Much of the charm of Mars Evacuees lies in its little details – Carl, like any sensible Australian, insists on taking a final swim in the ocean on Earth before the flight to Mars, and invents a game of ‘Getting Around As Much Spaceship As Possible Without Touching the Floor’, an unnamed tabloid newspaper lurches between praising the ‘plucky children of Mars’ and whipping up hysteria about social issues, a teddy-bear-shaped robot designed to teach the younger children is unintentionally terrifying. All these struck me as being very much the sorts of things that would be noticed by, and would matter to, a twelve-year-old child. Another brilliant touch is the moment when Alice, incensed at the bullying that Josephine is facing from some of the other children, explodes in anger. ‘It is not because of what you’re like, it’s because of what they’re like,’ she shouts. This needs to be printed on every classroom wall. The book does not delve too deeply into the interior lives of its characters, and so it is in these little details that we come to know their personalities.

At many times in the novel, I found myself tearing up. Not because it’s a sad story – rather, my tears were caused by the overwhelming sense of inclusiveness and hope Mars Evacuees inspires.* The main quartet of children is truly representative – Carl and Noel are Filipino-Australian, Josephine is African-Caribbean-British, and Alice is white British – and the broader group of evacuees comes from every corner of the globe. Their education is in the four most widely-spoken languages – English, Hindi, Mandarin and Spanish – and every child who already speaks one of those as a first language is required to be taught through the medium of another. Mars Evacuees is science fiction at its best: looking to the stars and imagining a better future. Like Pacific Rim (and unlike most recent dystopian or post-apocalyptic fiction), the stakes feel truly global, and the effort to save the world is undertaken by people from every nation on the planet. The apocalypse is averted not by violent, selfish individualism, but by compromise, communication and empathy. Mars Evacuees tells us, again and again, that if we share, rather than take, pool our respective strengths rather than devalue some qualities as weaknesses, and, above all, if we listen rather than reach for weapons, the future of the world will be bright.

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*I must admit that one such moment was when Carl described Sydney. It’s so rare to read a (non-Australian) children’s book that mentions Sydney’s beaches, walking through Chinatown, and Darling Harbour and its amazing fountain (although I must say that most residents of Sydney would probably avoid such a touristy area). But it’s nice to see yourself represented, you know?