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Short and sweet(ish) July 14, 2020

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, novellas, reviews.
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I am very happy with this new trend of authors publishing novellas set in the same universe as their series of novels. It seems to lead to works which explore relationships, characters, or corners of their imagined worlds that there just wasn’t space for in the novels — and therefore gives their fictional worlds and characters more space and three dimensionality. This kind of novella can be used to make space for missing moments in the preceding narrative, or — my very favourite kind of story — show what happens after the final page is closed. I’m a nosy reader: I want to know what happens after the story ends, and what the characters do in their downtime, in moments of cosy domesticity.

Cover - Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders

The answer to that in Aliette de Bodard’s novella Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders is ‘solve a murder mystery.’ Her characters certainly don’t get much in the way of downtime! The book sees Thuan and Asmodeus — dragon prince and fallen angel respectively, joint heads of the fallen House Hawthorn — return to the kingdom under the Seine to celebrate Tết with Thuan’s family. But any hope of a peaceful, pleasant holiday is shattered almost immediately, when the pair uncover a murder, a potential coup, and a court rife with tension, plotting, and corruption. One of the things I loved most about this couple in the preceding novels in de Bodard’s Dominion of the Fallen series was their contrasting — and conflicting — ways of dealing with problems: Thuan preferring to work within existing systems and come up with a diplomatic solution, his husband Asmodeus preferring to blast his way through any impediment with threats and violence. These contrasts are on full display in Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders, to excellent effect — but what the novella also shows is how those contrasts are complementary, and when these two formidable supernatural husbands work together, things have a way of working themselves out. I really appreciated this element of the story: for all that it is a fast-paced whodunnit (as well as an exploration of the poisoning effects of institutional corruption), it’s a relationship study as much as it is a murder mystery, written with exquisite subtlety.

Samantha Shannon’s The Dawn Chorus also brings its central relationship to the fore. This novella has two interwoven strands: flashbacks to missing moments in the earliest book in Shannon’s Bone Season dystopian series, and scenes which take place in the immediate aftermath of the third novel. The series really doesn’t give its characters much time to breathe, and in some ways The Dawn Chorus represents just that kind of pause — it gives the narrator, revolutionary Paige Mahoney, and her friend, former captor, and sometime lover, the Rephaite Warden — the space to work through the various tensions, traumas, and sheer overwhelming emotions generated by their terrifying existence and complicated relationship. It’s a story about recovering from trauma (and fiercely independent, untrusting Paige letting Warden help her recover) — its action picks up just after Paige has been rescued from weeks of torture and her impending execution — but in spite of this heavy subject matter it’s also a rare chance for the two characters to be alone for almost the first time since they met. Theirs is a relationship that carries a lot of baggage — they met in seriously unequal circumstances, and the novella is in part a way for them to finally address that openly — and matters aren’t helped by the fact that Paige’s torturer constantly brought up this relationship as yet another weapon to wound her. But here, for once, in their safe house in Paris, Warden and Paige’s relationship doesn’t have to be a performance for either their enemies or their allies. Now they simply need to work out what that relationship does look like, away from the eyes of others.

Cover - The Dawn Chorus

I really hope to see a lot more such novellas from both authors, set in their two respective dystopian universes. I particularly appreciate that in these kinds of books, both de Bodard and Shannon can give a lot more prominence to emotions, romantic relationships, and self-reflection than is possible to give the characters in either main series of novels. The novellas both flesh out, and give further emotional context to, characters’ actions in the wider series. I’d been stuck in a bit of a reading slump, but reading these two novellas in quick succession has made my next choice of books clear: a reread of both The Bone Season and the Dominion of the Fallen series!

Darkness, banished December 22, 2019

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, novellas, reviews.
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Today — the morning after the northern hemisphere’s longest night of the year — seems like the perfect moment to talk about a delightful novella I read recently. Sing for the Coming of the Longest Night, cowritten by Katherine Fabian and Iona Datt Sharma is the story of families found and chosen, a celebration of queer love, life and community, and takes place during the cold, strange, interstitial time that is the leadup to the winter solstice. The novel is told from two points of view — Layla and Nat, who have never got along, but are forced into an uneasy alliance when their shared boyfriend, magical, flaky, fey Meraud, goes missing. They must work together to find and save him before the solstice, after which point he will be lost to both of them forever.

Cover - Sing for the Coming of the Lowest Night

There are so many things I enjoyed about the book. I loved the compassion and joy with which it celebrated its characters’ queerness — multiple nonbinary characters, characters of all sexual orientations (with the only straight characters kept mainly in the background), some characters living in same-sex married middle class respectibility, others in overlapping polyamorous groups, but all happy and supported by those around them. I also loved the somewhat rueful rendition of the weirdness that is the UK in the leadup to Christmas, and how bizarre, frankly, a lot of the ‘traditions’ of this time period (dreadful school nativity plays, tacky shop decorations, ghastly Christmas singles released on the radio) can appear. (The acknowledgement, also, that these ‘traditions’ are forced on everyone, whether they’re religiously or culturally Christian or not — given that Layla is Hindu and Nat is Jewish — was also very welcome.) I also adore stories where characters with really different perspectives are forced to make common cause and work together, so I really enjoyed seeing this with Layla and Nat, especially their slow moves towards trust, understanding and empathy for each other’s experiences and outlooks over the course of the book.

But my favourite thing of all about Sing for the Coming of the Longest Night was the way it portrayed the blurring of the supernatural into everyday life, imbuing London, home, and family with a sense of weirdness, wildness and magic. The story has a folkloric quality, reminding me of another winter solstice British classic which is very dear to my heart, Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising, in the way in which wild, frightening British mythology intrudes into comfortable Christmassy familiarity. As in The Dark Is Rising, the characters are saved by the thing that all winter festivals, at their heart, are celebrating: warmth, light, and human kindness and connection. The result is a book that is both hopeful and cozy, which acknowledges that family (whether of blood, choice, or some combination the two), love, and relationships are messy and complicated, but also that they are the only thing that will save us. The novella was a shining candle of hope, illuminating the darkness with kindness and clarity.

No more dreaming like a girl, for a body in the garden July 21, 2019

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It would have been easy to devour This is How You Lose the Time War, Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone’s collaborative epistolary time travel romance novella, but something about its format, and its authors’ obvious enjoyment of the tactile, private pleasure of a correspondence through physical letters, encouraged a slower speed to savour their story. This exquisite work — told in letters between two rival, time-travelling agents as they manipulate the streams of history to the perceived advantage of their respective sides — is a marvel and a delight. The story is at once playful and tragic, with both authors revelling in wordplay and allusions, and the extremes of emotion engendered by their characters’ poignant situation.

Cover - This is How You Lose the Time War

Time travel stories are difficult to pull off well: there’s an inherent inequality between traveller and those who wait, and to whom the traveller returns. A time traveller venturing into the past can often come across as unbearably superior, revelling in their private knowledge of present-day science, technology, and social norms while withholding this knowledge for personal gain. A time traveller from the past to our present can play into unfortunate stereotypes and tropes. This is How You Lose the Time War sidesteps all these issues firstly by making both Red and Blue, its letter-writing antagonist-lovers, time travellers, rather than one journeying and returning while the other waits, and secondly by conveying the achievements and experiences of the past with a sense of genuine respect and wonder. It helps, too, that El-Mohtar and Gladstone’s wide-ranging journeys across space and time present us with our own world’s history — but slightly slantwise, with subtle tweaks and changes, and sharp divergences from the expected path, offering endless possible outcomes.

As someone who has long been a fan of both authors’ individual works, I was greatly anticipating this joint effort, although curious about how their two very distinctive voices would work together. Here the format really is a strength — to me (familiar with both Gladstone’s and El-Mohtar’s writing) it was clear which author was responsible for which component, but it felt very much like a free-flowing, coherent conversation, or a song in which two voices joined harmoniously. The novella length gives the story exactly enough space in which to unfold in all its vivid tragedy, its two characters spilling out their love, and pain, and fierce, sensual engagement with the world, in letters, scattered across space and time for each other to find. As spies, their lives, work, and even bodies are not quite their own — belonging instead to their respective causes — and so the intensity of their letters stands in contrast, a space in which their thoughts, words, feelings and dreams belong to them alone.

The authors have spoken in interviews and other promotion of the book of their own friendship, sustained and enriched over the years by a long, correspondence in physical letters. They talked of their appreciation both for the tactility of pen, paper, and other stationery, and for the privacy and slowness of such an exchange. In an environment where the community of SFF authors is increasingly global, the medium that enables this global community and exchange of ideas can be a bit of a double-edged sword: the price for easy communication with other authors and readers on the other side of the world seems to be that all ideas and conversations must be uttered at high speed, in public. The authors’ decision to correspond by letter, therefore, has the effect of carving out a space where some of their ideas, their thoughts, and their friendship can be expressed, but not offered up for public consumption. The novella that has emerged as a result of this friendship — and its analogue conversations and exchange of ideas — is a love letter, told in love letters, to the notion of the letter itself.