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Tell them stories, twenty years on October 17, 2017

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

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

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

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

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Books for joy, part 2 March 19, 2017

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, fangirl, reviews.
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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.

Books for joy September 18, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘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?

Oh, the humanity! February 2, 2014

Posted by dolorosa12 in blogging, fangirl.
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This blog seems to go through phases in terms of content, and its current incarnation appears to be Narrative Tropes That I Like (and Why Most Authors Do Them Wrong). This post is an attempt to unpack one such narrative trope, and to explain why, when done right, I love it so much. And that theme is non-human beings and the humans who love them (and why and how they love humans). I’ll accept pretty much any twist on this formula. Gods and humans? Vampires and humans? Angels and humans? Demons and humans? Fairies and humans? Sentient robots (or cyborgs, or androids or whatever you want to call them) and humans? Pencil me in! I love them all. The basic requirement is that at least one character is an entirely mortal human being (although they may have supernatural abilities of one kind or another) and at least one other is completely, utterly inhuman.

I like this particular (rather broadly-defined) theme because it has the potential to go almost anywhere, but, when done right, gives yet another answer to that all-important question: What does it truly mean to be human? And, in answering this conundrum with this particular set of tools, storytellers open up a whole new range of questions: If humanity equals consciousness plus emotions plus social cooperation plus empathy, what does that make a conscious, cooperative, empathetic robot? If vampires can feel love, what does that make them? Is human morality based entirely on human mortality, and, if so, what is the morality of immortals, and can it ever be reconciled with that of human beings?

And that’s before you’ve even got on to the fun bits of human-inhuman character interaction. One of the most pleasing things about shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer is that the forced proximity and shifting alliances of the human characters and supernatural beings causes a sort of blurring of the lines between humanity and inhumanity. The vampires become a bit more human, and Buffy herself becomes a bit monstrous, but this all happens so gradually that it appears entirely natural and understandable. The same goes for Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles – Sarah’s very success in her life on the run from murderous cyborgs necessitates thinking like them, feeling like them, and so the woman becomes a little bit like a machine. The Terminator Cameron Phillips is a foil to Sarah – a machine who discovers her own humanity.

But as much as I love Buffy and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, neither goes quite far enough in this direction (although the cancellation of T: TSCC means that we’ll never know if this was a deliberate narrative decision or not). I want women who walk with monsters and become monstrous but always remain human, and monsters who love humanity but remain monstrous. I want machines who gain consciousness and emotions out of love for human beings but remain strictly machines, and I want humans whose love for machines forces them to question their beliefs on personhood but never cease to be human themselves. I want humans who tremble at the reality of what their demon lovers are, but walk into their arms with their eyes wide open. I want demons who find humanity terrifying and humbling and disarming, and can do nothing but love before its power. In short, I want stories about human and inhuman characters who know exactly what each other are, and love each other for it.*

What I don’t want, however, is Twilight. You may think this is kind of a low blow – picking on a story that is almost universally loathed and considered to be of very poor quality, but I actually have a lot of time for wish-fulfilling paranormal romance stories aimed at teenage girls. I think they do a good job of exploring the way love feels at that age – overwhelming, all-consuming and full of terrifying transformative potential. I am probably odd in that it wasn’t the cliché-ridden prose, nor was it the glamorizing of abusive relationships (although I did hurl New Moon at the wall when it was blank for a few pages to indicate Bella’s catatonic state at being left by Edward) that made me give up on the story. No, I gave up on it when I realised that Meyer was going to turn Bella into a vampire so that she could live together, forever, with Edward. The most interesting thing about fictional relationships between mortals and immortals is that one will eventually die, and one will live on forever! (The other imbalances of power in the relationship are interesting too, because in the hands of a competent author, it’s possible to present the ostensible weaknesses of humanity as a kind of power too.) I need my mortals and immortals to be secure enough in their identities to allow themselves to change one another – but only up to a point. In other words, if such characters are a metaphor for anything, they should be a metaphor for the way the most important real-world relationships change people, but also make them more secure in their identities. True love – familial, romantic or platonic – gives people the space to grow and to be themselves more completely.

This particular metaphor, however, should only ever whisper in the margins. The worst thing a writer can do is saddle the relationship between humans and supernatural (or robotic) characters with too much real-world metaphorical baggage. A particular gripe of mine is the tendency to use the struggles of paranormal beings as an analogue for real-world civil rights movements. (Southern Vampire Mysteries/True Blood, I’m looking at you! Harry Potter is a culprit of this too.) So, your vampires have just come ‘out of the coffin’ and want to be accepted by human society? Don’t layer on the similarities with the LGBT rights struggle! Vampires – even if, as in the case of True Blood, they eventually are able to replace human blood with a synthetic alternative – kill people. At the very least, they hurt and exploit them. The analogy with LGBT people (or any other group that experiences real-world discrimination) is offensive.**

I’m for the gods, monsters and machines, the humans they love and who love them back. I’m for misfits of all types, who feel uncomfortable in their own skin (or metal, or whatever material angels are supposed to be made out of), and who cling to other misfits in the face of everything. I’m for the human and inhuman coming together and making each other whole.

_________________________________
*I am not talking only about romantic love, although it’s true that in a lot of these stories, that it is the kind of love being explored.
**One of the many things I love about Sarah Rees Brennan’s Demon’s Lexicon trilogy is her acknowledgement and aversion of this analogy. One character is gay. He also happens to have magical powers. Magicians in the world of this series enhance their power by feeding people to demons. The character (who at that point has done no such thing) hid his magical abilities from his sister. When she angrily confronts him and says, ‘but you told me straight away when you realised you were gay’, he replies that his being gay doesn’t hurt anyone, but that being a magician is a potentially harmful thing.

Dreamtrails paved with bones November 15, 2013

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, fangirl, reviews.
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I write fairly frequently about the fact that reading habits change over time, and that I feel things differently as an adult (by which I mean from about the age of 25 onwards) to how I did as a child. I seem to keep coming back to this issue again and again in my writing, worrying away at it. Because when I say I feel things differently, I suspect I mean that I feel things less. It’s as if every book, every show, every song is an attempt to regain a sort of childlike or adolescent intensity. And when I feel it, I am loquaciously grateful.

I sit here, having just finished Samantha Shannon’s debut novel The Bone Season and I am quite literally exhausted with feeling. My mouth is dry, my breathing is shallow and my heart hurts with how much I loved the book. I am astonished by it. It is as if Shannon made a list of everything I personally want in a story and then went away and wrote it for me. As you can imagine, therefore, this review will not even attempt to be objective. I will, however, attempt to explain why The Bone Season hit me in the id quite so hard.

It’s getting to the point where I should have a tag or list named ‘the rubbish I will put up with in order to get stories about humans interacting with angels, demons, or other terrifying supernatural beings’. It will be a long list. I should have a second list, named ‘Things I wish authors of stories about angels, demons and other terrifying supernatural beings would include in their stories’. It would include: a realistic dystopian setting, an extensive criminal underclass which resists passively, a heroine who hates The Oppressive System but also possesses a healthy degree of fear for it that prevents her from fighting it directly, a heroine who has a support network and preferably other female friends, and a recognition that rebellions are likely to be messy and will involve moral greyness.

In other words, the second list would describe The Bone Season. From here on, assume spoilers.

The book is the story of nineteen-year-old Paige Mahoney, who lives in an alternate version of our own world in which humans possess a variety of paranormal abilities, all of which have been outlawed by an oppressive totalitarian government. The only legal way to exist as a ‘voyant’ (short for ‘clairvoyant’) is to do the government’s dirty work and hunt other voyants, a deal which provides security at the expense of longevity. However, as would be realistic in such a setting, an extensive underground network of criminal voyant gangs has sprung up, each operating in its own patch and forming a dual function as a grey market in less than ethical commerce and a community in which fugitive voyants can attain a sense of family and acceptance. Unbeknownst to her father, who works for the government as a scientist, Paige leads a double life in one of the gangs, based in Seven Dials in London. (And can I just go off on a slightly gushing tangent and say that another reason why I adore this book so much is that all the cool people hang out in my favourite parts of London, namely Soho and Covent Garden?)

The inevitable eventually happens, and Paige is captured. Rather than being executed, as she feared, she’s brought to Sheol I, a vast, secret penal community built over the ruins of Oxford. There, Paige learns the truth about her powers and her world. She and the other voyants captured are assigned to Rephaim, extraordinarily powerful supernatural beings who reveal that the totalitarian government under which the voyants have been suffering is the puppet of the Rephaim, and that the voyants have been recruited as foot soldiers in a terrible, otherworldly battle. In Sheol I, voyants are safe to reveal their identities and hone their clairvoyant powers under the tutelage of their assigned Rephaite guard. The only catch? The voyants are prisoners, and completely at the mercy of their Rephaim captors in a profoundly unbalanced arrangement. They are expected to become ruthless soldiers, betraying their fellow voyants if necessary, and treated with utter contempt by the Rephaim, even though the latter rely on them for their existence (the Rephaim feed of the auras of voyant humans). Paige is assigned to a captor called Arcturus, whom she addresses as ‘Warden’ (as this is his position in the Rephaim hierarchy), and who begins to train her in using her abilities. He is a confusing and enigmatic force in her life, both terrifying her and on occasion betraying extraordinary vulnerability and secrets in her presence.

One thing that I really appreciate about The Bone Season is the fact that Paige is understandably wary about her safety, both in London and in Sheol I. She is not reckless, but instead makes all sorts of compromises and sacrifices in order to carve out a space for herself in two extremely dangerous situations. Far too often in stories of this kind, the heroine is overly principled and uncompromising. Paige remains an appealing, but realistically terrified individual. She is very slow to trust Warden, and makes him earn her empathy through openness, genuine and concrete support and the recognition that she possesses power and agency in her own right.

By the same token, I really dislike dystopian novels in which the heroine is completely without a support network and all other characters (especially other female characters) are indistinguishable minor jealous antagonists. Shannon avoids this pitfall admirably in The Bone Season. Paige already has her friends in the criminal voyant underworld, who, while looking out for their own interest, seem to genuinely like her and care about her and provide a space where she is accepted and valued for her abilities. Once she gets to Sheol I, she finds friends and allies among its human and Rephaite inhabitants, all of whom are three-dimensional characters in their own right. And there is no love triangle!

But the best thing about The Bone Season? It’s the first of a seven-book series.

It’s about power March 2, 2012

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[Spoilers for Kate Elliott’s Crossroads series, in particular the third book, Traitors’ Gate.]

My heart broke twice while reading Traitors’ Gate, the third book in Kate Elliott’s Crossroads series. The first time was when Captain Anji finds out his wife Mai is dead, and he collapses and has to be held up by his men. The second time was when Mai returned to Anji seven months later, only to discover that he has remarried and that her son doesn’t recognise her, and calls Anji’s new wife ‘Mama’. The ending of this book (and of the series’ first trilogy*) is absolutely brutal.

It’s also one of the cleverest examinations of the nature of power I’ve read for quite a while. That theme is like catnip to me. I love books which look at who has power, why, and what that means, especially if they throw in a bonus exploration of different kinds of power, how they are valued relative to one another, and what that says about a particular society. That, in its essence, is what Crossroads is about, although that makes it sound very dry indeed. And the series would be dry, if not for its vibrant worldbuilding and engaging cast of characters.

When we left our characters at the end of the second book, our heroes were facing existential peril. The mercenary leader Captain Anji and his wife Mai had settled in the Hundred and had won the trust of the people among whom they lived mainly due to Mai’s talents as a merchant, diplomat and generally adaptable and accommodating person. Mai had given birth to a son, Atani, and the pair looked set to be building a new life in the Hundred, once they’d dealt with the pesky problem of an army led by tyrants slaughtering its way through the land, and the ever-menacing threat of the Sirniakan Empire hovering just off-screen. (Anji was a son of the former Sirniakan ruler, and it is a land where one claims the throne by murdering all rival claimants. Anji had been in exile since he was a child, but the threat remains.) But how wrong I was!

Well, up to a point. Our heroes do deal with these threats, and once they’re done, the Hundred is arguably a safer and more stable land. But as the book progresses, it becomes more and more apparent that not all of them are as heroic as previously imagined. I’m talking, of course, about Anji, and I’m kicking myself for not realising that there were little hints thrown in here and there in the previous books to show us that his intentions were not as pure as they seem, as seen through Mai’s adoring eyes.

What Mai – and the reader – thinks she and Anji are doing is settling down in a new homeland, adapting themselves to the customs and culture of that land, and giving back to that society according to their means and ability. As such, she puts down roots, forging connections through a combination of trade, friendship and the exchange of ideas, as well as doing her part to tie Anji’s Qin mercenaries more firmly to the land through marriages with local women. She is the consummate diplomat, able to keep her own feelings at some remove, a hard bargainer with a canny understanding of human nature who is able to persuade people to her cause without making them feel like they’ve been exploited (as, indeed, they have not).

Anji makes use of this, as his skills are more useful on the battlefield than in the marketplace. Theirs was an arranged marriage, and yet it appeared to be a happy one. Anji respected Mai’s mercantile abilities, and while the circumstances of their union were inherently a power imbalance (Anji and his mercenaries were in control of the trading town in which Mai lived, and when he asked to marry her, there was no way she could’ve refused), they were comfortable with each other and indeed felt something which I read as love.

This is what makes Anji’s actions such an utter betrayal, and Mai’s reactions so painful to read. It is not that he pretended to love her, and yet used her, but that he genuinely loved her and used her all the same.

For in fact what is really going on is that Anji, far from integrating and adapting into life in the Hundred, in fact views it as a land ripe for his rule. Exiled from his paternal inheritance of Sirniaka, and his maternal Qin relatives (and perhaps because of the fact that he cannot find power and acceptance among his kin), he sets about conquering another kingdom for himself. And he uses Mai – and her talents – to shield people from realising what is really going on. They see a saviour with a beautiful and charming wife and cute son, when what he actually is is an inflexible, jealous**, covetous ruler, better only in degree and not in kind from the tyrants he overthrows.

What Elliott is actually doing in this series is interrogating the hackneyed old epic fantasy plot of ‘dispossessed man saves world and is thus its rightful ruler’. In giving readers access to the lives of characters not often shown in this type of fantasy (farmers, artisans, merchants) she shows us why people would accept the rule of a leader like Anji (give up freedom, gain stability, crudely speaking). At the same time, through Mai, she tells us the stories that people tell themselves to avoid seeing the truth of the powers that control their lives. The myth of the chosen, rightful, just ruler is one such story with which people deceive themselves, and Elliott dismantles it with dexterity, pathos and emotional honesty.

____________________________
* There will be a stand-alone book featuring the characters from the first trilogy, and then another trilogy set some time after the events of the first, with (presumably) a new set of focal characters.
** The instant he slapped Mai’s face in anger at her going to the temple of Ushara (a place where people worship by sleeping with the temple acolytes – which Mai did not do, as she was only accompanying a friend), I knew that Anji was irredeemable. Yes, he loved Mai, but he loved her in a jealous, possessive ‘don’t touch my things’ kind of way.

It don’t matter if you’re black or white… November 29, 2011

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, childhood, fangirl, reviews.
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…but if you’re grey, forget about it!

Reading books in a series which you loved as a child or teenager is on occasion an unsettling experience. Some childhood favourites stand the test of time, remaining as true in adulthood as they were in youth. The works of Gillian Rubinstein, Adele Geras, Catherine Jinks and Philip Pullman remain thus for me. Those of Victor Kelleher I get even more out of than I did as an adolescent. Some of the things he says are hidden until you’ve lived long enough, I think. If any of these authors were to write another book in the series I enjoyed, I would be delighted.

But sometimes, looking at the books of your childhood with an adult eye is a confronting and disappointing experience. Something about them doesn’t stand up. Themes which previously seemed intensely relevant to your life appear less significant, or at least less well-expressed. The truth which you previously drew from such books is less true, less significant, less burning.

I’m sad to say that, upon reading The Sending, the latest in Isobelle Carmody’s Obernewtyn Chronicles, I realised this series was of the second type. Spoilers follow.

Carmody is, above all things, possessed of a unique ability to understand and convey the mindset, hopes, fears and dreams of a particular type of teenager. This teenager is one who is shy, artistic and bookish, hyper-empathetic and self-aware, and just realising what a cruel place the world can be. There are some adults like this, but not so many. I was one such teenager. Her books, with their message that if we all were more empathetic and compassionate, the world would be a much better place, resonated deeply with me.

Don’t get me wrong. I still think empathy and compassion are wonderful, admirable qualities, and that we should strive towards them at all times. But I can no longer look past Carmody’s converse argument, which is that lack of empathy and compassion is a sort of sickness or disease. (This is something she argues pretty much across the board in her books: in the Obernewtyn books and in Alyzon Whitestarr, characters can perceive a mental sickness in the antagonistic, non-empathetic characters, while in the Legendsong books, multiple worlds are literally dying because people in them can no longer hear the ‘song’ which is the metaphor for the harmony of creation.)

Such an explanation seems to me to remove responsibility from such characters for their actions, and it removes responsibility from the heroic, empathetic characters to help the former. But, more unforgiveably, it removes ambiguity and nuance. I find this problem most pronounced in the Obernewtyn books. The heroes are all noble-minded, compassionate and pacifist, the villains are all mindlessly violent, bigoted and acquisitive. The heroes have tragic pasts that they rise above. The villains have no backstory.

Just about the only character with any hint of moral ambiguity was Domick, a Misfit (ie one of the good guys) sent to infiltrate the Council (the baddies) and send back information. The horrors he sees cause him to sever ties with Obernewtyn and renounce non-violence. This is an entirely explicable and justifiable character arc. When you’re fighting evil, you can’t help but become a little bit morally grey.

But of course there’s no place for nuance in the world of Obernewtyn. Someone like Domick can’t exist. So he’s killed off in The Stone Key, the fifth book in the series.

I realise I’m taking Carmody to task for not writing the kind of book I want to read. She’s free to write whatever she wants, and I’m free to stop reading, but I honestly feel her arguments would be stronger if things weren’t always so morally clear-cut. Why, in a six-book series with a cast of characters that takes up five pages of the book, does only one person display an ounce of moral ambiguity? Why do all the other characters who suffer abuse, discrimination or horrors of some kind go mad, become consumed by grief or fear, but never, ever get angry or reevaluate their beliefs? And why does Carmody think that ‘he just loves to hurt those weaker than himself/is power-hungry’ is a catch-all explanation for cruelty and injustice?

I will keep reading, because I’ve been doing so for nearly 15 years, but I fear a terrible fate has befallen me. I’ve grown up too much to get any life-defining, resonant truth out of the Obernewtyn books, and am continuing to read out of a mixture of nostalgia and a desire to find out how it all ends.

NB: I should add that in spite of this problem, I do find Carmody a very fine storyteller. There was not one point at which I wanted to close the book, and I gulped the whole thing down in just over a day. I have no issues with the overall story or themes. I just think they are weakened by problematic characterisation.

Hold your colour October 23, 2011

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Pendulum as a band is extremely concerned with the visual elements of music. I don’t mean that they care hugely about image, but that their music is all about visualisation. (Most particularly colour: they have albums called Hold Your Colour and Immersion, after all.) Each album is about construction: they start with the kernel of an idea and gradually build upon it. It’s a story, but a small story (that is, not in the same way that Massive Attack’s album Mezzanine is the story of the beginning, decline and end of a relationship), a single idea that slowly expands and becomes refined. It doesn’t progress, it just becomes clearer.

(And thus Hold Your Colour is about a journey through space, In Silico begins in outer space but shifts the focus to a siege or a doomed relationship, Immersion is essentially a journey beneath the waves, with hints and allusions to Shakespeare’s The Tempest.)

The emphasis in particular is on colour, made explicit through song titles and lyrics, but the connection is more complex than that. They evoke colours and imagery through their sounds. (Hold Your Colour, the most electro-sounding album, evokes video games and computer games through its heavy use of smooth, flowing synth. When I hear it, I see pixels and rushing galaxies.)

[This is an old post, a fragmentary series of scribblings I discovered on a handout from some long-forgotten seminar on aideda or death-tales in medieval Irish literature. Obviously it was a thrilling seminar.]

Fell from my heart and landed in my eyes August 25, 2011

Posted by dolorosa12 in fangirl, music, reviews.
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In matters of music, I tend to be so behind trends that I’m left chasing the dust of the bandwagon. And while I’m happy to throw myself with glee towards the latest manufactured pop act, if a singer has indie credentials and favourable reviews in the music press – in short, if he or she is the festival darling du jour – I am skeptical.

Hence it taking me two years to bother listening to Florence + The Machine.

Her very ubiquity turned me off. It was not until one friend made a playlist that included ‘Cosmic Love’, and another gave me the whole Lungs album that I realised what I’d been missing. I was hooked. I listened to the album seven times in a row last night, and then went back and forth replaying the four songs that really sang to me: ‘Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)’, ‘Drumming Song’, ‘Cosmic Love’ and ‘Blinding’.

I wasn’t at all surprised at the suddenness and depth of my love. My favourite music, the stuff I really cling to and identify with, could all be termed ’emotional, quirkily black-humoured, usually ethereal female vocalists’: the soaring voices of the female guest-vocalists of Massive Attack, The Knife, with their way with dark words that enables them to interweave Vikings, ‘Scandinavian socialism’ and misogyny in one song, and the rich grief and strength of country singers like Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris.

The music of Florence + The Machine possesses these qualities in abundance. I’ve seen her described as a kind of musical Angela Carter, and I think the description is very apt. Her songs are a kind of dark fairytale, a metaphorical maze of mirrors and animal imagery. She sings about woman as body laid bare, not just naked but dissected, cut open and reduced to its component parts. And she does it with such compassion, beauty, sorrow, jubilation and power that I’m left feeling like I’ve been run over by a train after listening.

I feel that ’empowering’ is a complicated word and should be used with care, but I know of at least a couple of friends who found Florence’s music to be a source of strength at difficult times in their lives, and I personally found two songs in particular extremely empowering, whatever that word means. They are ‘Cosmic Love’ and ‘Blinding’, and to say that they reflect my own personal experience would be an understatement. You may recall that when I write about music, I tend to look for connections between songs, and in particular identify two songs as being a linked pair in some manner. I feel very strongly that, at least from my perspective, these two Florence songs are a linked pair.

It may be obvious when you listen and look at the lyrics that to me, ‘Cosmic Love’ is about loving someone who is deeply inappropriate and hurtful, while those of ‘Blinding’ are about waking up from that love and walking once again in the daylight and the spring and the sunshine. That’s what they say to me, but I have a particular set of experiences and a tendency to seek the words of others in order to mythologise these experiences and give them voice. I would not be so presumptuous as to declare that that is what the words mean to Florence or to other listeners.

There are so many other words and stories behind these songs. There is addiction (which doesn’t necessarily have to be to a person). There are Russian fairytales. There is Snow White and Persephone (and Florence is by no means the first person to make this connection). There is so much feeling it is almost unbearable, if not for the fact that the feelings being articulated are my own, and they are so perfectly articulated that they give me bravery and strength. They give me a voice.