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A wave of justice June 14, 2020

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, reviews.
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Trilogies are tricky, and ending them in a satisfying way is the trickiest thing of all. S.A. Chakraborty had a lot of tangled threads in her Daevabad trilogy to weave into a coherent final tapestry — characters, beings and peoples with grievances lasting millennia, the struggle for power in a magical otherworld built on political feuds and entrenched inequality, her heroine Nahri’s mysterious origins, forbidden love, unrequited love, and at least one love triangle — but she managed this with gusto in the excellent final book, The Empire of Gold. I’ve done pretty much nothing other than read this book for the entire weekend, and now that it’s finished I wish there was more!

Cover - Empire of Gold

The Daevabad books take place in a fantasy otherworld populated with magical beings — djinn, marid, peri and ghouls, as well as their part-human descendents — inspired by Islamic folklore. The Daevabad of the series’ title is the capital city of a vast djinn empire, the site of endless political struggles between different ruling groups. At the end of the second book in the series, Daevabad’s tyrannical king Ghassan al-Qahtani had been violently overthrown, sending the city’s fragile stability into chaotic disarray, and replacing his dictatorial rule with something even worse. The trio of point-of-view characters: Ghassan’s earnest, virtuous and inflexible son Ali, the centuries-old Dara, and Nahri, raised on the streets of Cairo and possessing magical healing powers are all trying to figure out where they stand in relation to this abrupt change in political power, and how they should respond to it.

The Daevabad trilogy is about a lot of things. It’s a coming-of-age story for both Ali and Nahri, a journey of self-discovery. Nahri slowly transforms from a prickly, guarded street urchin who survived on scams and trickery to a woman with a family both blood and chosen, connections, and a fierce sense of ethics, and something to fight for. Ali’s is a change from rigid dogmatism to a more empathetic and compassionate understanding of others’ frailties. The books are also a wonderful vehicle for Chakraborty to showcase her vast and well-researched knowledge of history, mythology and folklore. But above all else the series is about what it means to truly build a just and equal society. It is about the sacrifices and personal growth necessary for those at the top of the political heap to realise that they have no divine right to rule, and that their empire of gold is built on the bones of those they dismiss as nothing. It is about Dara, coming to understand that he is viewed by those he admires as a weapon to be wielded, and that there is no possible justification for the monstrous violence he has wrought over the centuries for his cause. It is about Ali, understanding at last that replacing his cruel father with another ruling dynasty — no matter how good their intentions — will not bring about lasting peace and an equitable society. And it is a rebuke to any arguments that would claim that stability is more important than justice.

I’m tired of epic or political fantasy whose triumphant conclusion is to replace an unjust ruler with another leader deemed more worthy, rather than questioning the entire system of rule, and I’m really glad that Chakraborty didn’t go down this route in her trilogy — much as I love both Ali and Nahri, it would have felt like a hollow victory. I’m also tired of redemption equals death narratives, so again I am relieved that the series gave Dara a truer kind of redemption, one which was difficult, harder work, and longer lasting than a single sacrificial act. The series is in a way a love letter to the Islamic world and the various different cultures which form it, and the fact that the series ended with a celebration of multi-ethnic, multicultural communities was a very nice touch. It was entirely fitting to me that the series should end with the dismantling of Daevabad’s structural inequalities by a former prince with a love of books, economics, and the nerdy work of public servants, and a young woman with healing gifts whose dream was to build and staff a hospital open to all. The work of healers and community-builders is less glamorous than flashy acts of violence or supernatural prowess, but it is, of course, the most powerful form of magic in the world.

Seas of freedom May 12, 2020

Posted by dolorosa12 in fangirl, reviews, television.
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To begin with some tortured mixed metaphors, I’m generally late to every party, but when it comes to Black Sails I was so late that the bandwagon didn’t so much as pass me by as vanish into the distance. However, there’s nothing like a global pandemic to force you to make a serious dent in the Netflix (or in this case, Prime) backlog — and Black Sails has definitely been the highlight of my isolation binge-watching so far.

Set in the final days of the so-called ‘Golden Age of Piracy,’ Black Sails is intended as something of a prequel to Treasure Island, following both the various pirate crews on their raids and adventures around the Caribbean, and the stories of the communities back on land of which they are a part. Although the show initially starts out with the sort of formulaic sexposition and gore common to historical TV series wanting to establish themselves as properly ‘gritty,’ this soon makes way for an intelligent exploration of power, the persuasiveness of storytelling, and the iniquities of empire. The show sprinkles heavily fictionalised versions of real-world historical figures (including a number of then-notorious pirates) with characters from Stevenson’s novel and others created specifically for the show.

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While the narrative of the show is engaging enough — a mixture of treasure hunts and violent raids interspersed with the intense political machinations at sea and on land to establish a community free from the interference of the British (or indeed any other) Empire, where the show really shines is in its characters, and their relationships. A show in which most characters are either pirates or members of the flourishing black market of land-dwelling traders who work with them might be forgiven for revelling nihilistically in the violence and harshness of such characters’ lives — and yet at every stage instead it emphasises their care for, connection with, and interdepency on one another. This is, of course, in stark contrast to the colonising forces they oppose. The pirate characters are at their most vulnerable when they forget their need for each other, and tend to make their most foolish mistakes in moments of selfishness or disconnection from their peers and community. A recurring theme of the show is the futility of the different pirate crews and other major players competing with, and double crossing each other — that were they to pool their resources, combine their diverse skills and make common cause they would be formidable and unstoppable. Of course, the volatility of the personalities involves makes this impossible, and the show instead is a fast-paced journey of constantly shifting, unstable alliances, as impermanent and dangerous as the treacherous seas on which they sail.

The show is very much concerned with the dispossessed and outcast. Freed and/or escaped slaves feature heavily, at some points allying with the pirates, in other instances recognising that doing so would put them in situations of terrible vulnerability. There are disaffected exiled Jacobites, religious and political dissenters, women who are clearly more competent than the men around them but who must exercise their authority slantwise without those men realising it’s happening. And, as viewers discover partway through the series, the spark that lit the particular powder keg and caused the action of the entire show to unfold was an illicit, polyamorous, queer relationship that the powers-that-be judged intolerable.*

Inevitably, my favourite character was Max, the sex-worker-turned brothel madam-turned power behind the throne, closely followed by her sometime lovers, sometime antagonists Jack Rackham and Anne Bonny. I’m less interested in obvious heroes or tragic revolutionaries: give me those whose every inch is focused on survival, compromising, bargaining, and blustering all the way. It was characters like these who tempered the nihilistic, burn-it-all-down fervour of their fellow outlaws, reminding them — and viewers — that victory alone is insufficient without a sustainable community to return to and fight for.

Black Sails reminded me in some ways of the TV series Spartacus, which also aired, as the former did originally, on the US cable channel Starz. Both are ridiculous, over-the-top, filled with nudity and stylised violence, and yet they grapple with meaty, serious questions. Should dispossessed people continue a futile fight against the overwhelming might of empire, and is it worth the cost? What does it take to build a genuinely equitable community? At what point does the clarity and purity of a single-minded war against tyranny become unsustainable? Will a pretty story be a greater recruiter to the cause than the messy truth? These are not easy questions, and Black Sails offers no easy answers — just carries its audience forward along the restless sea.

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*For those worried that Black Sails follows the tedious pattern of queer relationships that end in tragedy, rest assured that although it may appear that way at first, it subverts this trope in the most astonishing way.

The sound of their own angry voices February 22, 2020

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Due to a serendipitous set of heavily discounted ebooks, I found myself in the somewhat unexpected position of reading two books about the journalists involved in breaking the silence on Harvey Weinstein in quick succession: Ronan Farrow’s account, Catch and Kill, and She Said by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey. While I’m not sure I would have done this deliberately, it certainly didn’t feel like overkill, and the two books are different enough that I got something out of them, and felt like I had a better overall picture of how the situation unfolded by reading both.

Cover - Catch and Kill

I think overall I preferred Farrow’s book (and if I recall correctly, I preferred his New Yorker article to Kantor and Twohey’s article in the New York Times as well) — he put more of himself into the story, and for me that made it more interesting. If you’ve read his New Yorker article, you will know that not only was he struggling to get a potentially contentious and controversial story out into the world, resisted at every stage by Weinstein, his lawyers, a decades-long Hollywood culture of silence, but he was also, apparently, up against rather scary interference from a private intelligence agency run by ex-Mossad agents, with agents surveilling his apartment, manipulating potential sources, and monitoring their affairs. At points throughout the book it feels less like an account of investigative journalism or holding a powerful, abusive man to account, and more like a spy thriller. Kantor and Twohey either experienced none of this, or they chose to leave it out of their own book.

It was interesting, also, to see the contrast in what each journalist found difficult in breaking this story. Farrow, initially trying to publish it with NBC, spent what appeared to be months fighting with the network’s hostility and sheer refusal to air his story (they constantly fobbed him off, discouraged him, so enmeshed were they in Weinstein’s world, and attempting to bury sexual abuse scandals of their own), but seemed to have had little difficulty persuading Weinstein’s former victims to talk to him, even on the record. In contrast, Kantor and Twohey had the full support of the New York Times, but appeared to have had endless problems convincing the women to talk to them or go public. As is now known, Farrow eventually gave up with NBC and took his story to the New Yorker, where it got a much more receptive ride, being published — after rigorous fact-checking — shortly after Kantor and Twohey broke the story for the New York Times.

Cover.- She Said

Both books were, in their way, a celebration of long-form investigative journalism: the importance of giving journalists the time, support, and resources necessary to examine an issue from all angles, let sources talk at length, and marshall the various legal arguments necessary for when the man at the heart of the story mounted his inevitable and aggressive challenge. I’m really glad that both sets of journalists ultimately got the support they were given to pursue this story to the bitter end, especially given other journalists had been trying, and failing for decades to get the story out there, and the terrible cost borne by the various women Weinstein had used and discarded along the way.

What both accounts also made abundantly, depressingly clear was that it was less their own efforts — and the courage shown by their various sources — that meant this story got told, but rather the fact that Weinstein was no longer making money for the various people around him. Cut loose from Disney several years ago, and with less apparent ability to make or break an actor’s career or a film’s critical success, he was eventually seen as a liability and allowed to fall from grace by those who had previously shielded him from the consequences of his actions. I found that very telling. It’s tempting to look at the #MeToo movement as a long-overdue righting of numerous wrongs, and point at the various high profile abusers whose accusers have finally been able to speak their truths — but how many of those men have actually suffered real, material consequences? At worst, some of them have had to disappear from the public eye for a while. Very few have faced consequences worse than that, and those that have are mainly those who were no longer earning money for the various hangers-on around them. The world might finally have started to believe women, but it still doesn’t give our words weight, or feel that the horrors that so many of us have experienced are of any great significance. It is satisfying, in the accounts of Farrow, and Kantor and Twohey, to read of at least one situation in which women were, finally, heard.

The ruins of the garden January 26, 2020

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Books making use of Irish mythology and medieval Irish literature are a really hard sell for me: when you have a PhD in the subject, it’s very hard to be objective with stories that merrily disregard the scholarship, or go all in for a romanticised, Celtic Twilight approach. So I approached Mary Watson’s duology, The Wren Hunt, and The Wicker Light — which posit that families of feuding druids survived in secret into the present day, working magic and battling for control of various objects of power — with great trepidation. I shouldn’t have worried: while I did have to switch off the academic corner of my mind when it came to some components of her druid families’ history (and how their magic expressed itself), the actual story she’d built around this mythological scaffolding was incredible.
Cover - The Wren Hunt

This YA series is set in Kilshamble, a fictional small town in an indeterminate Irish location (but within commuting distance of Dublin). Unbenknownst to the town’s residents, their home has been a battleground for centuries for two branches of a secret community of druids: the judges, and the augurs. The Wren Hunt, the first novel, is narrated by Wren Silke, a teenage girl brought up by augurs and sent on a dangerous mission to infiltrate the organisation in charge of their judge enemies. The Wicker Light is told from two viewpoints: David, a judge boy caught up in his family’s political machinations and escalating war with the augurs, and Zara, a girl outside this druidic battleground who stumbles on its secrets.

But what the series is actually about is the painful, visceral horror of growing up with trauma, raised by parents who are at best disappointing, and at worst outright abusive. Both Wren and David have been raised by parents (or parental figures) who view them as weapons to be wielded, keeping secrets from them the better to mould them into perfect, unquestioning, loyal soldiers. Zara’s father is a liar and a cheat, and his actions are destroying his marriage, leaving Zara’s mother emotionally absent and unable to recognise or mitigate her daughter’s deep pain. The druidic magic which permeates every corner of the characters’ lives is violent, cruel, and violating, bound up in an honour culture of brutal loyalty for the sake of the cause, and a tendency among both judges and augurs to view their foot soldiers as expendable. The bitter weight of parental expectation becomes monstrous and frightening.
Cover - The Wicker Light
The solution, in the face of all this cruelty, is kindness, truth, and an active rejection of familial cycles of abuse and violence. The judges’ and augurs’ battle of life and death is played out in rural Irish fields and hedgerows, ruined houses, and the gossipy high streets of small, insular towns, and Watson evokes brilliantly the secretive claustrophobia of living in such a small community where everyone knows everyone else’s business, and the weight of distant historical slights is still felt centuries later. Her teenage narrators must each individually make the choice to move beyond that: to reach out, to think creatively and compassionately, to end the war, and, hardest of all, to think of themselves not as weapons but as people. The result is at once satisfying, hopeful, and healing.

Bearing witness January 26, 2020

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I have to admit that I was a little bit cynical when I discovered that Margaret Atwood had published a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. On the back of a successful TV series (and, more pointedly, a global political context in which the ideas explored in her original book were front and centre in the popular consciousness) which had renewed interest in her dystopian story, it felt like cashing in. Or, if not cashing in, perhaps an attempt to close the conversation by providing definitive answers to the ambiguous questions with which The Handmaid’s Tale novel closed.

Cover - The Testaments

Unfortunately, I have to say that I was proved right. The Testaments is an engaging and competently told story, which, were it an unrelated novel about resistance to a dystopian regime, or a piece of fanfic written in the world of Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, I would find very good indeed. It weaves the stories of three women bound up in the struggle against Gilead and all it stands for, showing how their actions, independently and together, hasten the demise of its iniquitous regime. But the choice of which three women Atwood has chosen to illustrate this revolution is very telling: Aunt Lydia, the instigator of the entire programme responsible for codifying and implementing the legalised rape of women designated Handmaids, and the two daughters of June/Offred, the original novel’s narrator. Her older daugher, Hannah, is raised in ignorance of her origins to be the perfect Gilead Wife, while her younger, Nicole, has been spirited away in secret to Canada and raised in ignorance of her origins by people leading the anti-Gilead resistance movement. All three, ultimately, work against the regime, and the novel shows us clearly how their actions are enough to bring the dictatorship down.

And that, I think, is my first problem with The Testaments. The overthrow of Gilead feels too easy: it takes only a mere decade or so, and although Atwood is careful to show how the resistance is operating in secret under the very noses of the authorities, conducted in plain site through quiet moments of ‘women’s work’ that the men in power don’t notice, in the end the regime’s demise seems to have been mainly the result of the actions of three very heroic individuals. Atwood was very clear when writing The Handmaid’s Tale that all elements of the abusive situation in which women in Gilead found themselves were drawn from an amalgam of real-world precedents, including purely US American phenomena such as the fundamentalist, patriarchal Christian Quiverfull movement. These real-world injustices were (and are) deeply entrenched, and those that were overcome were done so only after the work of decades, centuries, and incalculable numbers of people. Ending Gilead in less than a decade felt unearned, unrealistic, and, to my mind, unjustifiably hopeful.

But by far the deeper problem with The Testaments is its ending of ambiguity. Atwood writes in an afterword that she wrote the novel in the main to provide answers to the many questions readers of The Handmaid’s Tale have asked her over the years. But it’s the ambiguous ending of The Handmaid’s Tale that is, in large part, responsible for that novel’s power: readers leave that book knowing that the regime ends, but not how, and not after how long. We’re left uncertain of its narrator’s fate, and even the identities of many of the people about whom she writes: the book is limited in space and time by design, the bounds of its world mirroring the experiences of the woman who gives voice to the way her own world has become narrowed and constricted. Did we really need to know that she escapes to join the resistance in Canada, or that Nick, the driver whose loyalties are uncertain, was working against Gilead from the beginning? Did we need to know that Aunt Lydia was always working to undermine the regime from within? The whole thing felt to me like an attempt to restore clarity to a story — and characters — whose strength had always been a kind of fuzzy uncertainty, more realistic to the way most people live with, and within injustice. People in The Handmaid’s Tale were not blazing, unafraid revolutionaries, or cartoonish villains (although of course many of them did horrifically terrible things) — mostly they were terrified, just trying to survive, or alternated between being sources of respite or violence for the people whose lives were in their hands. It was a quieter story that redefined what resistance looked like, which at once remorselessly condemned progressive North American women for being asleep at the wheel to the dangers posed by US Christian fundamentalism, assuming their rights would be safe and assured once it became somewhat socially acceptable for women to work in positions of authority, and spoke with compassion for people rendered powerless by oppressive, violent regimes, showing that sometimes mere survival is its own kind of heroism.

The Testaments does shine a light on the minds of women growing up immersed in a violent, patriarchal society, and there are some devastating moments, such as the acknowledgement that extreme patriarchy which renders all men as constantly beset by violent, lustful thoughts (and all women responsible for men’s behaviour) while keeping girls completely ignorant of sex for the sake of their ‘purity’ will result in nothing other than creating a generation of women so repulsed by and terrified of sex that they will refuse to the the one thing required of them: to marry and bear children. For the most part, however, it forgoes these quiet moments of connection with the terrifying, real-world effects of fundamentalist patriarchy for clear answers which readers shouldn’t need, undermining the devastating power of The Handmaid’s Tale itself. Sometimes, readers don’t need clarity: ambiguity is not just sufficient, but desirable.

Darkness, banished December 22, 2019

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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.

The voyage home September 8, 2019

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G. Willow Wilson’s novel The Bird King starts in the Alhambra, in Granada, at the moment of the final collapse of Al-Andalus (Islamic Spain), but it does not finish there. I was drawn to it by its setting — I’ve long been fascinated by Al-Andalus, and love reading fiction set at any time during its existence — but what lingered with me were the clarity and beauty of the book’s tone and themes. Wilson’s novel is at once fairytale and fantastical, lyrical and resonant, with an elegiac quality that reminds me of medieval literature.

Cover - The Bird King

The story opens in Granada, as the Emir (called the Sultan throughout the book) prepares to surrender to Isabella of Castille, with this portentous political moment watched in fear by Fatima, a slave born in the harem who has never left the confines of the Alhambra. Although the other women of the harem — royal relatives of the emir, or slaves like Fatima — assume that little will change, that they will simply exchange one ruler for another and carry on as before, with the surrender come the forces of the Inquisition. The inquisitors, though content at this moment to leave the Muslims they encounter to convert to Christianity as and when they’re ready (their worldview is such that they cannot imagine that a person may never be ready to do so), any hint of magic is viewed with profound and violent suspicion. This causes immmediate problems for Fatima. While she possesses no supernatural abilities of her own, her dearest friend Hassan is a mapmaker with a strange and wonderful skill: the ability to create doors, paths and spaces where none existed before, simply by mapping them and drawing them into reality. When Fatima unintentionally reveals Hassan’s skill to an inquisitor, the pair are faced with a choice: give up Hassan to torture and certain death, or flee towards an uncertain future. The book follows them on their flight.

Once Fatima and Hassan flee the Alhambra, the story takes on a more folkloric quality. The pair encounter djinn and other beings from Islamic mythothology, convenient sailors pop up to convey the pair to safety across hostile oceans, and Hassan writes spaces of sanctuary into the land within which he, Fatima, and the allies they encounter on the road can hide. The bird king of the title is a mythological being who dwells on a hidden, magical island, and reaching this fabled place becomes the characters’ aim. There are near death experiences, hasty escapes from their implacable, terrifying inquisitor foes, and uncertain alliances with people (and supernatural beings) met along the way. The island which they yearn to reach is the realm of the bird king to them, Avalon to some Christian characters, and imagined as different otherworlds again to others — a place of peace and plenty, where characters imagine they will be protected from pain, violence, or cruelty. Their painful, meandering journey towards it reminds me somewhat of the immrama (medieval Irish voyage tales; immram literally means ‘rowing around’) I researched during my postgraduate studies, in which dispossessed, somewhat marginalised characters undertake sea voyages towards otherworldly islands, with the physical voyage representing the spiritual journey of the soul towards God.

There is a similar kind of grace and compassion at play here. At its heart, The Bird King is the story of a group of dispossessed, traumatised people finding their way to a place of safety, and finding a sense of family and a home in each other. They must fight battles both physical and supernatural, political and personal to get there, and the way to their island home is fraught, dangerous, and in no way straightforward — but Wilson shows that what the characters gain is worth this fight. It takes extraordinary courage to leave everything that is familiar behind, and reject — as Fatima does — opportunities to surrender into comfort and protection: but by making this courageous choice, again and again, Fatima is able to find her way home at last.

Out of the abyss August 1, 2019

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If I had one word to describe each book in Aliette de Bodard’s magnificent, gothic Dominion of the Fallen trilogy, the first book’s would be survival, the second hope, and the third, justice. It’s a cautious, qualified kind of justice that we find in The House of Sundering Flames, but the seeds of a better future are there.

In this final book of the series, several different strands of story intertwine. The Fallen Houses of Paris are struggling to make sense of an unknown power that’s attacking and destroying their kind. Philippe and Isabelle live with the Houseless community of Vietnamese migrants, where eking out a living and refusing to get drawn into the political conflicts of the Houses is the best they can hope for. And the dragon prince Thuan struggles in the face of racism and hostility to settle into his new role as husband to the Fallen Asmodeus and co-head of House Hawthorn.

Cover - House of Sundering Flames

Atmospheric and dark, this is a book by an author at the top of her game. It’s tricky work, balancing explosions, intricate political manoeuvrings, several love stories, and the fierce, communal will to survive of a downtrodden but determined group of dispossessed people, but de Bodard pulls it off brilliantly. My favourite moments would have to be those focused on the Asmodeus-Thuan romance — a careful, cautious dance by two powerful beings used to guarding their thoughts, and to the lone exercise of authority. Their slow journey towards trust is a microcosm of the larger theme of the book: survival built on compromise, but not at the expense of justice.

The other moments in which this book shone brightest for me were those which highlighted parenthood, family, and community. Aliette de Bodard never writes about lone, isolated heroic saviours — and I love her books all the more for it. Hers are always worlds in which adventure is a family affair, raising a child is the work and responsibility of a community, and the everyday labour of parents — especially mothers — is imbued with heroism and celebrated accordingly. The House of Sundering Flames is no different. Her characters may be fighting for survival, but they always have time to feed a child, learn recipes from a grandmother, or check in on a neighbour. Without this, it’s clear that survival would be worthless.

As the tension builds and the threats grow greater (including one truly gothic moment in which ancient houses quite literally begin to devour their own), de Bodard’s feuding factions of mortals and immortals, powerful and powerless must make a decision: die alone, or stand together. It’s a chance to right ancient wrongs, and take the first, difficult steps towards a world in which everyone in this brooding, scarred, post-apocalyptic Paris might have a chance at a future.

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.

A thinking woman sleeps with monsters April 21, 2019

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, fangirl, reviews.
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I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered a book that glories in, and commits to, its darkness and the sheer seductive joy of villainy as much as Emily A. Duncan’s debut young adult novel, Wicked Saints. Most other young adult literature like this that I’ve read tends to hold back, pulling its punches. These books soften the men, making them less villainous, giving them a reasonable explanation for their behaviour that makes it justifiable. Or they take the opposite route, allowing the heroine to recognise the villainy at the last minute and recoil in righteous horror. But Duncan doesn’t just embrace the darkness — she revels in it, and lets her heroine follow her path without judgement.
Cover - Wicked Saints
The heroine in question is Nadya, a young cleric who can commune with her country’s, Kalyazin’s, pantheon of saints, raised in seclusion in a monastery until the moment she’s ready to be released like a weapon in the long, religious war her country is waging against its near neighbour Tranavia. Unfortunately, the war comes to her door before Nadya is ready, forcing her into a temporary, unwilling alliance with Malachiasz, a renegade blood mage from Tranavia whose motives are shrouded in secrecy. Serefin, the heir to the Tranavian throne — who drowns his father’s disappointment in drink and battlefield heroics — rounds out our trio of messed-up primary characters. Wicked Saints is, in many ways, the story of Nadya’s journey from righteous moral clarity to moral ambiguity and beyond. Much of the story takes place in enemy territory, as Nadya goes undercover at the behest of Malachiasz, and becomes mired in the various political intrigues that swirl around the Tranavian court. Nadya is at once attracted and repelled by Malachiasz, and her attempts to understand and second guess him come up short until the very end. I follow Duncan on social media, and so I was pretty sure I knew where the story was heading, but for those more steeped in the expectations and conventions of YA fantasy, the twist at the end — and how far Duncan allows Nadya to fall — is likely to come as a shock.

The world of Wicked Saints is certainly aesthetically Slavic (specifically Poland and Russia), but unlike recent fantasy works such as Katherine Arden’s Winternight trilogy, Rena Rossner’s Sisters of the Winter Wood, and Naomi Novik’s Uprooted and Spinning Silver, Duncan doesn’t seem to draw much on existing Slavic folklore or history. In this the book has much in common with Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse novels, which use their Slavic setting as scaffolding and structure, visible in the names of characters and places, and the look and feel of the landscape and cities, but then move beyond this real-world inspiration.

For those who, like me, found Bardugo’s original Grishaverse trilogy enjoyable but ultimately frustrating, Wicked Saints is a welcome breath of (chilling, gothic) fresh air. Bardugo’s heroine Alina Starkov’s story concluded with one of my least favourite tropes: a powerful young teenage girl, brimming with terrifying magical abilities, gives it all up because her own power frightens her and she yearns for an ordinary life. Not so Duncan’s Nadya: here is an unabashed power fantasy for teenage girls that doesn’t judge them for this fantasy or try to direct it in a more morally or socially acceptable direction. Sometimes power, villainy and darkness are attractive — and that’s okay.