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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.

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In many lands April 20, 2019

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When I heard, after more than three years, that Zen Cho was returning to the fabulous world she’d first created in her debut novel, Sorcerer to the Crown, I was relieved and delighted. Sorcerer to the Crown was one of my favourite books, with a fabulous cast of characters, vivid setting, and, most impressive of all to me, a story that managed the difficult feat of being at once hilariously funny, and sharp social commentary. On the back of that debut success, a sequel was announced almost immediately. But for authors, sometimes a beloved and well received first novel can be a double-edged sword, and Cho has written frankly about her struggles to build on the success of Sorcerer, starting and restarting the book that would eventually become The True Queen, as if the weight of expectation (her own, her readers’, her publisher’s) was an impediment. Knowing the backstory to this second book’s creation, I approached it with a mix of trepidation and anticipation. I shouldn’t have worried: Cho’s return to the world of Sorcerer to the Crown is a triumph. She’s once again perfected exactly the same deft navigation between light and darkness, humour and horror, whimsy and pointed sharpness that I loved in her first book. And although it’s set in the same universe — a fantasy Regency Britain in which certain individuals openly possess magical power, with a whole political and social structure set up to accommodate this — the point-of-view characters are different, meaning we explore the same world, but with fresh eyes.

Cover - The True Queen

In the first book, the focus was firmly on Cho’s heroine Prunella, the penniless orphaned daughter of an Indian mother and a white British father, with powerful magical abilities, and her love interest Zacharias, the first African Sorcerer-Royal, and their attempts to navigate the intrigues and plots of a racist, sexist society which tolerated them at best, and only grudgingly allowed them entrance, requiring them to be extraordinary where their white counterparts would have been accepted as ordinary or even mediocre. In The True Queen, our protagonist is Muna, a young woman who journeys to Britain from Janda Baik in the Malacca Strait, seeking help from Prunella on the advice of the witch Mak Genggang. Although Muna arrives in Britain alone, she had washed up on the shores of Janda Baik with her sister Sakti, having lost her memory. Sakti has magical abilities, while Muna has none, and the two become separated from each other while travelling through an otherworldly forest on their way to England. Muna arrives at Prunella’s door desperate to be reunited with her sister, but quickly finds herself embroiled in intrigues in both England and the otherworld. Prunella may have clawed her way to her position as Sorceress-Royal through sheer magical power, and created her school for magical girls and women on the strength of her own bluster and chutzpah, but her position — and that of her school — is far from secure, and enemies both human and supernatural are waiting for a moment of weakness so they can pounce. Muna steps into this hornets’ nest with secrets of her own, and must navigate the treacherous waters of aristocratic Regency England with little information and few allies.

The result is a book that focuses on the stories of women, and shows us the many different ways that women’s power can look. At its heart, of course, The True Queen is a story about two sisters, and that central relationship between Sakti and Muna — love, generosity, support and frustration — is one of my favourite things about the book. But there is also Prunella — revelling in her unconventionality while at the same time wielding people’s racist assumptions about her like a weapon — and the little community she’s trying to build in her school for magical girls and women. There’s Prunella’s friend and fellow magical educator Henrietta, trying to find a way to stay true to herself and her hidden magical abilities while also complying with the expectations of her family. Henrietta’s own relationship with her sisters is like a little echo of that of Muna and Sakti. And, best of all, Cho’s novel is full to the brim with fabulous, powerful older women: chief among them is the glorious Mak Genggang, who was one of my favourite presences in Sorcerer to the Crown, and I was so happy to see her back again in The True Queen.

This book is such a celebration of women, and in particular the networks they form among themselves, and the stories and adventures they have, unwritten, unnoticed and unrecorded. It’s a glorious and triumphant return to the world of Sorcerer to the Crown, and a very worthy successor. I can only hope that The True Queen is not Cho’s last foray into this universe, and that she finds new stories to tell about these characters, and this richly imagined world.

Out of the abyss March 3, 2019

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When Samantha Shannon announced several years ago that she was pausing her Bone Season dystopian fantasy series to write a new standalone novel that had taken hold of her imagination, I was intrigued. I’d been a fan of her work since The Bone Season was first published, rejoicing in its wonderful protagonist, alternate London setting, and richly inventive system of magic and the supernatural, and was keen to see what she would do in a slightly different subgenre. Watching the novel which eventually became The Priory of the Orange Tree take shape over the past three years has been wonderful: a story that blends elements of real-world history (in particular Tudor England, the Reformation and subsequent tensions between Protestant and Catholic powers in Europe, and Tokugawa Japan) with lore about dragons from both East Asian and European cultures, and whose characters stand poised on the brink of apocalyptic annihilation. The result is an ambitious, sweeping fantasy that is epic in every sense of the word, from its stakes and scope to its immense weight and page length. In Priory, Shannon has moved from the tight, first-person narration and personal focus of her Bone Season series to a story told from four points of view, a cast of characters that fills several pages, and the intricate political manouevring of more than four kingdoms, and a secret religious order as well! She handles this complexity deftly — despite its length, Priory never feels bloated, and the shifting between several continents and points of view serves to underscore her broader point about the fluidity of history, and how interpreting the past is, ultimately, a matter of priorities and perspective.

Cover - The Priory of the Orange Tree

Shannon has been very clear in interviews and promotional writing that much of her motivation for writing Priory stems from a desire to speak back to history — and its misuses. One of the story’s main inspirations is the legend of St George and the dragon, which has a long history of being coopted for English nationalistic purposes; I’ve certainly witnessed it being used by the far right to advance an Islamophobic agenda, argue in favour of Brexit, and in other similar contexts. However, when digging into the roots of the legend, Shannon uncovered a whole other story that had been lost in the noise and bluster of nationalism: that it had uncomfortable undertones of religious intolerance, and hints of several interesting women, pushed to the margins but with intriguing stories of their own waiting to be told. These are brought to the fore in Priory. One of the powers in her imagined world, Inys, draws its authority from its legendary inheritance as a queendom ruled by the descendants of a dragon-slaying George-like figure, and the damsel he supposedly rescued from a fiery end. Its current ruler, Sabran — whose personal circumstances seem like a blend of those of the two Tudor queens, Mary and Elizabeth — is embattled, facing a hostile, dragon-ruled kingdom on the one hand, intrigue among her courtiers on the other, along with pressure to marry and give birth to an heir, and increasing political isolation. Her lady-in-waiting, Ead (one of the point of view characters) has secrets of her own, among them knowledge of the bed of lies on which Inys’s political legacy has been built. On the other side of the world, in the Japan-inspired island of Seiiki, the orphaned Tané aspires to become an elite dragon-rider. Seiiki itself stands in sharp rebuke to Inys, showing up its hatred of dragons for the disproportionate, convenient lie that it is. Both Tané and Ead live on opposite sides of an unquiet rift, the site upon which an ancient foe was cast down, but whose simmering menace has never quite been defeated.

Tané and Ead are the two female point of view characters of the four, and their centrality to the story (the two male point of view characters both have important roles to play, but, I would argue, not quite to the extent that Tané and Ead’s stories drive the narrative) reflects Shannon’s broader focus on the experiences of, and relationships between, women. In spite of the real-world periods of history she draws on (each with its fair share of sexism), she has, for the most part, created a world free of sexism, where female characters in positions of political and military authority are as unremarkable as their male counterparts, and where locations and occupations (such as a queen’s suite of private rooms and the women who work there) generally dismissed as unimportant women’s spaces are recentred as the sites that drive the plot forward. Most of the important relationships in the book are between women — mothers and daughters, religious communities of women, women working together to serve their queen, and so on. Although there are some secondary and tertiary relationships that involve men (some romantic, some familial), the primary romantic relationship is between two women, and it’s absolutely marvellous to see this queer romance brought front and centre.

Shannon’s two main female characters, Tané and Ead, are just some of the many people who must put aside their differences to contront the terrifying, supernatural threat to their entire world. I couldn’t help but feel there was an element of the real-world threat of climate change underlying Priory‘s tale of demonic adversaries and fiery chaos. In Shannon’s epic fantasy, things have got to such a dire, catestrophic state, and the only solution requires people who hate, mistrust and fear each other, who have extremely different perspectives, aims and motivation to make common cause, because what they’re up against is so huge, so destructive, so relentless, and so awful that this is what it will take to defeat it. As you can imagine, it takes a lot to get her characters to this point, and, like anyone who fears for the future of my own planet, I can only hope that we recognise the gravity of the existential threat facing humanity sooner — because we don’t have the luxury of sentient dragons, magic, or enchanted swords! For us, as for the characters of Priory, there is no elsewhere.

In full bloom January 12, 2019

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I am not, in general, a person who buys books on the strength of their covers, so Felicia Davin’s Gardener’s Hand trilogy was a bit of a departure for me. But the series’ eye-catching covers, spotted at some point when I was scrolling through my Goodreads feed, and the fact that the trilogy appeared to feature a central relationship between two women was enough to spark my interest, and I’m very grateful for the serendipitous moment that brought these excellent books to my attention. At its heart, this is a series about survival — surviving harsh landscapes, oppression and injustice, cruel family history, and threats both supernatural and mundane. It’s also a series about found family, with a pleasingly ‘us against the world’ dynamic that I always find really appealling.

cover - thornfruit

The setting of these novels is a tidally locked planet, and the various societies that have sprung up within such an unforgiving landscape have found different ways to cope with its inherent problems. Some, on the ‘Dayward’ side of the planet use shades to block out the eternal sunshine, and make ingenious use of courtyards, open windows, and gardens as ways to escape the heat, while other cultures have no taboo against nudity and wear minimal clothing to keep as cool as possible. Those in the hottest possible habitable zone live in carefully engineered underground cities, making clever use of mirrors, skylights and tunnels to let daylight shine into the depths. In the ‘Nightward’ side of the planet, there are heated, enclosed cities carved out of the ice.

But the challenges of this setting are not merely due to excessive sunlight (or its complete absence): there are frequent but unpredictable earthquakes and tsumanis, poisonous ‘medusas’ (which seem to be like giant squids) lurking in the ocean, and the constant human threat against any person exibiting magical powers.

cover - nightvine

One such individual is Alizhan, one of the two heroines of the series, who can read minds, and whose very touch causes pain. She has been raised in isolation as a weapon by Iriyat, a woman with secrets of her own. While Iriyat attempts to wield Alizhan against the various political intrigues of her city, Alizhan has other ideas, and, together with Ev, a physically tough but very soft-hearted childhood friend, she makes a break for freedom, inadvertently uncovering multiple conspiracies and unravelling clues into her own mysterious past. As the narrative unfolds, the two characters begin to realise the extent of what they’re up against: a devastating existential threat against an entire city, and an all-powerful antagonist determined to use this threat for personal and political gain.

cover - shadebloom

The series ranges widely throughout Davin’s imagined world, and it’s a joy to spend time in all its regions, getting to know the cast of characters who appear, disappear and reappear over the course of the series, helping or hindering Ev and Alizhan. My favourite among these would have to be Thiyo, a self-assured, extroverted young man with a flair for the dramatic and the magical ability to learn and speak all languages fluently without any effort. He joins Alizhan and Ev midway through their quest, and his flashy confidence and openness is a great contrast to their guarded, angst-ridden awkwardness.

Most pleasing of all about this trio of characters is their inherent, unwavering goodness. Beneath Thiyo’s attention-seeking and drama, Alizhan’s blunt tactlessness, and Ev’s shyness lies a common heroism, a desire to fight against all injustices, and the refusal to be daunted by the enormity of their task. And, set gloriously against this grander struggle are their own human struggles and growth — all three are in love with each other, and the resolution Davin chooses to deal with this made me so happy. Yes, this trilogy is that rare beast: a love triangle with three bisexual characters (Thiyo had past relationships with men and women) with a satisfactory resolution and a happy ending. For that alone I would recommend it.

We are not things November 17, 2018

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Ever since I first read the Iliad as a teenager, so long ago the exact translation into English escapes me, I was struck by the secondary story that seemed submerged beneath the war, honour, and claims to immortality through militaristic deeds of heroism: the story of the women. I never had much interest in the long recitations of characters’ ancestry, names of warriors killed on the battlefield, wooden horses or lucky arrows shot through vulnerable heels. Instead, I focused on the story that whispered in the margins: the calamity of war to the women and children it made most vulnerable, the ways such women coped with the ever-present threat of male violence, and the simmering presence of this violence even in ostensible peacetime, in spaces where women were surrounded by their own families. I sought out retellings of the Iliad that brought this story to the fore, finding hints of it in medieval and early modern versions of the story of Troilus and Cressida, an unsubtle and clumsy rendering of it in The Firebrand, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s story of Cassandra, and, later, Euripides’ The Trojan Women, a powerful tragedy which gives the Iliad‘s victims their voice. With the notable exception of Adèle Geras’ Troy (which is constrained by its young adult status, meaning it needs to steer clear of a lot of the darker pathways an examination of the effect of the siege of Troy on Trojan teenage girls should take), most modern female character-centric Iliad retellings have been a monumental disappointment. My suspicion is that the authors of these retellings often want to tell some kind of love story — and to make any love story palatable to a modern readership, they need to make what are pretty contemptible male characters palatable to that readership, resulting in pulled punches and attempts to redeem the actions of violent, destructive men who see nothing wrong with parcelling out women as spoils of war. At worst, you get attempts to turn the relationship of Achilles and Briseis into a love story (see: the ghastly film Troy), or to make the whole war a kind of backdrop for Achilles and Patroclus’ epic romance (see: Madeleine Miller’s The Song of Achilles, which renders the captive Briseis as a sort of chaste cheerleader for the Achilles/Patroclus relationship). As someone who is really interested in stories that take Briseis out of the margins and into the centre of the page, I find this incredibly frustrating — but it doesn’t stop me from reading every Briseis-centric Iliad retelling, searching for that elusive story that truly lets her speak.

It was through this roundabout, decades-long search, that I arrived at Pat Barker’s incredible, astonishing The Silence of the Girls. The title is a deliberate misnomer: hers is a book where Briseis — so silent for most of the Iliad — truly speaks, giving voice to the horrors she endures as a captive of first Achilles and then Agamenmon and bringing the experiences of the Trojan captives in the Greek camp vividly to life. Barker’s book sticks close to the plot of the Iliad proper, and plays straight the supernatural elements of Homer’s epic: the gods appear, Achilles is the semi-divine son of a sea nymph, and so on. Where she diverges is in the weight given to the perspectives of those dispossessed or unnoticed in Homer’s original narrative: women, both free and captive, children, and the unnamed hordes of mercenary soldiers brought over to Troy on the promise of fame and plunder.

Cover - The Silence of the Girls

There are so many moments of devastating power in Barker’s brilliant story that it’s hard to select just a few to give an impression of the narrative. There’s the point, early on in the book, where Briseis (at this point the young wife of a petty king of a city allied to Troy) is trapped, waiting a battle’s outcome with the other women of the palace, knowing that defeat in the battle will mean rape and enslavement, and she realises that all the slave women hiding with her have already experienced this at the hands of her husband and male relatives. There’s her constant focus, once captured, on Achilles’ moods and hands and body; like all women trapped in a situation of domestic violence, she has to maintain a state of constant vigilence to minimise the harm done to her and ensure her reactions to volatile male tempers don’t spark life-threatening brutality. There’s the scene where Priam — having slipped into the Greek camp to plead with Achilles for his son Hector’s body, and kissed Achilles’ hands in an attempt to persuade him — carries on as if this act of kissing were the greatest sacrifice and humiliation imaginable (something ‘no man has ever done before’), and Briseis reflects scathingly on the ubiquity of what she, and all women affected by war, have been forced to endure. It’s so ubiquitous that it goes entirely unremarked and unnoticed, like something of the fabric of the world.

At the same time, Barker focuses relentlessly on the resilient, fractious, messy community of captive women that has sprung up in the Greek camp over the ten years of the Trojan War. The war itself is essentially a half-seen backdrop: the real action takes place in the laundry tents, weaving huts, and at the edges of racous warriors’ feasts, where women circulate, pouring wine. All find different ways to cope with their situation: some force themselves to fall in love with their captors, or try to persuade one captor to fall in love with them, because one rapist is easier to endure than a whole camp of them. Others take refuge in maintaining a pretence of respectability, remaining secluded, weaving cloth, and only venturing outside when wearing veils, as if behaving like proper married matrons will convince the world that nothing has changed in their status. Briseis’ technique is to remain hypervigilent, not just to the mood in her own tent, but within the camp as a whole — and in this she is aided by the network of captive women, who move about unnoticed, slipping into spaces where they can pick up news with ease, and spreading it rapidly around to their fellow captives. Briseis is well aware that her only power is to be prepared: to know what is being done to her before it happens. She cannot avoid the blows, but she can brace herself for when they fall.

Barker is an author whose works frequently focus on the horrors war visits on ordinary people, and so the experience of women, swept up in the brutal violence of the Trojan War is a story she’s well suited to tell. She does so with honesty, clarity, and illumination of the small acts of resistance that go unnoticed when women are perceived to lack agency.

I wish I could say the same of Emily Hauser’s For the Most Beautiful, a story recommended to me as one that did justice to Briseis. Instead, what I got was a syrupy YA romance between captive and captor. I’m not averse to this kind of story (see, for example, my recent review of Aliette de Bodard’s Beauty and the Beast retelling, In the Vanishers’ Palace), but it needs to either embrace the darkness, or work harder to convince me that the captor is as trapped by their circumstances as the captive. When the captor is Achilles, a violent, volatile warrior whose talent, identity and sense of honour and prestige is entirely bound up in his ability to kill and wage war, the author is going to have work pretty hard. Hauser’s attempts remain, to me, unconvincing. It was a moment of almost comedic horror when I realised her Briseis was going to forgive and sleep with Achilles on the instant she realised he had just returned from killing her brothers on the battlefield. The justification for this forgiveness — if her brothers’ and her captor’s positions had been reversed, she would have felt his actions entirely reasonable, and that, as a mercenary leader his job is to wage war wherever he’s hired, so he’s as trapped in his role as scourge of Troy as she is in hers as a slave whose body is not her own — is outrageous. In the hands of a stronger writer, For the Most Beautiful could perhaps have served as the story of the pretty lies a captive tells herself to endure an intolerable situation, and the portrait of a fragmented and fraying mind, but Hauser seems to want us to see a love story. For the Most Beautiful certainly suffers in comparison with The Silence of the Girls, not least because it lacks the latter’s sense of a community of enslaved women, finding strength in each other, and navigating their circumstances with ingenuity, giving voice to those treated as nameless things in the original Iliad narrative.

Cover - For the Most Beautiful

It was interesting to read both these retellings in parallel with Emiy Wilson’s intelligent, perceptive, and remarkable translation of the Odyssey. While obviously needing to stick to the story that is actually there on the page, Wilson, like Barker, shines a light in areas that previous translations of the story chose not to emphasise. Where previous translators used the word ‘handmaid’ or ‘servant’, Wilson uses ‘slave’, ensuring readers will not look away from these slaves’ eventual slaughter. There is equal weight given to women’s work at the loom and the conversations that take place in women’s spaces, and Odysseus’s travails on his long journey home. Even Wilson’s choice of book cover is deliberate, featuring a trio of women, rather than the more normal ships on unquiet seas. As she has noted on several occasions, just as much of the Odyssey‘s plot takes place around the looms, laundries, bedrooms and kitchens of women as on Odysseus’ convoluted ocean voyages, so a book cover that highlights the latter is making a deliberate choice about what — and whose — stories are worthy of attention.

Cover - Emily Wilson Odyssey

While it is rare for most authors to get as much input into cover design as Wilson clearly did, it is worth noting that For the Most Beautiful has the sadly typical stock image of a headless woman, while The Silence of the Girls shows not only women and children in full, fleeing in terror, it also does not shy away from depicting what they’re fleeing from: the male warriors who have burnt their city. (There are, of course, other editions of these books with different covers.) When modern authors tackle the Iliad and the Odyssey — two epics which have occupied prime position in the Western literary canon for millennia — they are faced with many choices. What they choose to emphasise, whose story they choose to tell, and who they choose to forgive and redeem have a powerful effect. At brilliant best, like Barker, their choices bring justice and give voice to women silenced both the original narrative and myriad retellings. At worst, like Hauser, the choices of an author will take that voice away.

Hope in the ruins November 3, 2018

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A dark retelling of Beauty and the Beast where both characters are female, the cultural setting is Vietnamese, and the Beast is a dragon: there is nothing about that sentence I don’t like. As you can imagine, therefore, I was awaiting Aliette de Bodard’s latest novella, In the Vanishers’ Palace, with great anticipation. It was definitely worth the wait! Her Beauty analogue is Yên, a failed scholar eking out a precarious existence helping her mother with her medical work in a community that despises them. An attempt to heal one of her friends of sickness has unintended consequences, and results in Yên being given to a dragon, Vu Côn, in indenture. Yên fears abuse and death at the dragon’s hands, but from this unpromising start, love, hope, and healing blossom. Like the fairytale original, In the Vanishers’ Palace is a love story between captor and captive — and it certainly doesn’t shy away from this element — but it takes that love story in intriguing and unexpected directions. Instead of being a lonely and cruel recluse, Vu Côn is a worried and overworked mother, and Yên becomes tutor to her two children. And instead of Yên’s love making her monstrous lover human, Vu Côn’s dragon identity is part of the appeal, and she remains a dragon to the end.

Cover - In the Vanishers' Palace

In the Vanishers’ Palace takes place in a world reeling from rapacious colonialism. The eponymous Vanishers are no longer present, but the effects of their greed had reverberations felt long after their departure, from the depletion and degradation of food sources to the supernatural threats that haunt the margins of the story. Rồng, or dragon spirits in Vietnamese folklore, are benevolent, but Vu Côn, responsible for killing people made ill by the plagues left behind by the Vanishers, has become something to be feared. And, as de Bodard notes, the Vanishers’ cruellest act of devastation is to the colonised people themselves, whose very values and sense of self have been transformed (and not for the better), leaving them unmoored and ill-equipped to deal with the difficulties they face.

De Bodard opted to self-publish this work, and has stated at several points that this was a conscious decision in order to avoid any painful compromises in terms of plot, characterisation and representation. While the resulting work is excellent, it’s a pretty damning indictment of the current SFF publishing scene if the only way to end up with a story where queer relationships are normative, trans and/or nonbinary people are present and visible, and where colonised people are allowed to express fury and rage at their predicament without editorial pushback is to self-publish. It may be that this self-publishing choice was merely a precautionary measure, but if not, I sincerely hope that the quality and reception of In the Vanishers’ Palace makes things easier for other authors hoping to (self- or traditionally) publish work in its vein.

This being an Aliette de Bodard story, there are all the familiar and fabulous features that I’ve come to expect in her work: loving and mouth-watering descriptions of food and cooking, a refusal to flinch away from the devastating effects of empire and colonialism, and an intricate exploration of the different ways survival can look. This last is crucial, and resonates deeply with me. De Bodard rejects an individualistic interpretation of heroism, where a lone, special individual bravely solves the world’s problems alone. Instead, courage in her writing is all about (inter)dependence and community building — the little acts that forge and strengthen networks, reinforce familial and non-familial bonds, and the way that sometimes merely surviving and helping others survive is its own victory. De Bodard’s writing is at its exquisite best when it’s focused on hope in the ruins, and this shines through most beautifully in In the Vanishers’ Palace.

Winterheart October 5, 2018

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When you clear away the whimsy and Disneyfication, fairytales are pretty terrifying. They are concerned, above all, with survival, and all the tricks their resourceful characters employ to navigate the web of threats and danger they face in a terrifying, incomprehensible, and unyielding world. Contemporary reworkings of these fairytales that grasp this dark heart that lurks at the centre of enchanted forests are an absolute joy to read. Naomi Novik has done just that with Spinning Silver, her second novel that draws on fairytales for inspiration. In it, she takes familiar fairytale tropes: an unbreakable bargain with an unknowable, capricious otherworldly being, a brave woman forced to reckon with marriage to a monster, and poor children, starving in a frozen, famished landscape, given sustenance as a reward for their innate goodness, and gives them depth and complexity. Whether you like her take on these tales is going to depend a lot on how much you enjoyed her previous fairytale-inspired fantasy, Uprooted, as both involve very similar character dynamics and resolutions to their stories’ conflicts. Luckily for me, I adored Uprooted — and found Spinning Silver, if anything, even more to my taste.

Cover - Spinning Silver

In this new work, Novik weaves the stories of three brave, resourceful women, living in the harsh landscapes of pre-modern Lithuania. There is Irina, a noblewomen dealing with forced marriage to the Tsar, whose cruel behaviour hides an even darker secret. Wanda, a peasant girl, is struggling to keep herself and her younger brothers fed after the death of their mother and in the face of their father’s alcoholism and abuse. And, at the heart of the story is Miryem, the daughter of an unsuccessful moneylender who is struggling to keep her family afloat amidst poverty and antisemitism. The three women’s stories interweave, and in different ways all three become embroiled in the supernatural, which sits uneasily beside the human world, always threatening to intrude, with destructive consequences.

Novik has chosen Rumplestiltskin as the frame on which to hang her own broader story, and she gets right to the dark heart of this fairytale (which, like all fairytales, has incredibly disturbing undertones when you read it closely), bringing its themes of unequal bargains and exchange to the fore. In her own tale of Jewish moneylenders and superstitious villagers, mercantile ability and honest bargains are made heroic and magical, with Miryem’s skills that she developed as a moneylender (in marked contrast to her father’s lack of success in this area) saving both the human and supernatural worlds from myriad dangers. Miryem’s mercantile work sits beside the novel’s more general emphasis on the day-to-day work of everyday people, particularly women, with this work constantly reiterated as heroic and life-saving. Irina, who, as the wife of a tsar can hardly be said to be an everyday person, is nevertheless saved countless times by skills built up in women’s spaces, such as castle fireplaces where groups of women congregate to embroider and sew clothes. Meanwhile, Wanda’s hard labour with outdoor farmwork and indoor housework is equally valorised, and the novel also emphasises that the steps she takes to appease and placate her violent father and deflect his anger and abuse are a kind of labour of their own, one which takes its toll. And, in the novel’s exploration of another kind of marginalisation, Spinning Silver makes the point that living with the horrifying threat of anti-Semitism, the ever present fear that their peaceful neighbours will at any moment turn on them as a howling, violent mob, is an experience that, sadly, will aid its Jewish characters in dealing with other, more supernatural dangers.

There were so many fabulous little details that gave the world of Spinning Silver a truly lived-in feeling, but what I most appreciated were those which emphasised Miryem’s identity as an observant Jewish woman. Rather than fearing that eating otherworldly food will bar her way to the human world forever, she worries if the food is kosher (it turns out to be uncooked fruit, and thus safe). Her fears at being unable to measure the passage of time in the otherworld are less because she fears returning to the human world hundreds of years later, but rather because she needs to know when to observe Shabbat. Rather than being viewed as a barrier to Miryem’s participation in magical, supernatural adventures, her Jewish identity is a source of strength. Similarly, in a genre rife with dead mothers (and, to be fair, Spinning Silver does have its share of these), it was refreshing to observe the warm, supportive relationship between Miryem and her very much alive mother, as well as that of Irina and her former nurse, who was something of a maternal stand-in.

This is a world in which women save themselves — and each other — using the tools at hand. It is a world in which the work of a market stall seller, or a noblewoman presiding over a rowdy feasting hall, or a girl feeding chickens is given equal weight to magical powers. Indeed, it’s a world in which supernatural beings view prosaic, human skills as having a kind of magic of their own. In other words, in Spinning Silver Novik has married two of my favourite tropes: ordinary ‘women’s work’ made heroic, and supernatural beings viewing ordinary human skills as magical and powerful. It’s an absolute joy to read, and I very much hope Spinning Silver is not her last foray into fairytale-inspired fantasy fiction.

‘That love of maidens for monsters’ September 15, 2018

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Every so often, a work of fiction, whether series or standalone, will creep up on me like a welcome surprise, seemingly crafted to appeal to my exact tastes, its combination of elements so perfectly designed to fill a void in my reading I didn’t even know existed. Katherine Arden’s Winternight Trilogy, of which two books are currently published — The Bear and the Nightingale, and The Girl in the Tower; the third, The Winter of the Witch, will be published in January, 2019 — is one such series of books. Arden’s series is a work of historical fantasy, set in a slightly tweaked version of fourteenth-century Russia (or rather, to be more precise, the region we now know as Russia) in which the supernatural hovers just out of sight, where elemental gods and magical horses roam the snow-filled forests, and where most people’s beliefs comfortably accommodate both the icons and pageantry of Orthodox Christianity and the more earthy household gods of kitchen and stable.

Cover - The Bear and the Nightingale

Through this intriguing landscape strides Vasilisa (Vasya) Petrovna, the daughter of an aristocrat whose lands are in the frozen north, in a liminal encompassing both farm and dense forest, and a mysterious witch who died giving birth to Vasya, her fifth child. In The Bear and the Nightingale, Vasya grows up wild in her father’s lands, equally at home on the capacious stove in the kitchen, listening to her nurse’s stories, and roaming from river to stables to forest, chattering with the supernatural, otherworldly beings that only she can see. Arden’s is a world where gods require belief and offerings in order to survive, and Vasya provides these happily, while attracting the particular attention of Morozko, the old god of winter, frost, and death. This fragile peace is shattered by the arrival first of a new stepmother, a princess who would have preferred to remain unmarried and in a convent, and later of a zealous, charismatic priest sent north by the secular rulers concerned that his popularity could make him a rival to their own power. Both find Vasya’s unconventional nature disturbing and threatening, and, as she grows from a girl to a teenager, they seek to contain and constrain her, and attempt to stamp out the lingering pagan beliefs still held by the people of the household. Their zeal, however, has unintented, far-reaching consequences, inadvertently unleashing a horrific supernatural threat that will require all of Vasya’s skill, courage, and ingenuity to overcome.

The Girl in the Tower paints on a wider canvas, as Vasya leaves her familiar northern home, travelling to Moscow on Solovey, the magical horse given to her by Morozko, disguised as a boy, seeking her older sister Olga. However, her plans are thwarted by broader politics both earthly and otherworldly, as mysterious raiders ransack villages, stealing children, and the Grand Prince of Moscow weighs up whether to challenge the Mongol khans whose power wavers but who still extract tribute from their vassals in Russia. At the same time, a new supernatural threat emerges, a shadowy being who needs Vasya for purposes of his own. Vasya does her best to navigate these treacherous waters, but is challenged at every turn by the constraints placed on women in her society, yearning to ride free and unencumbered on Solovey in a world that would see her confined in either married women’s quarters or convent — or else as a threat that must be destroyed.

Cover - The Girl in the Tower

For all the latter book’s emphasis on the grand sweep of medieval Russian politics, the scope and focus of the series is pleasingly domestic — whether the kitchen stove of Vasya’s family home, or the private suites of rooms that comprise the women’s quarters of Olga’s marital palace. Arden makes much of the everyday labour of women: preparing food, sweeping hearths, embroidering elaborate headdresses, assisting in the birth of children. The lives of these women may be circumscribed, lived within a narrow space, travelling between hearth, bathhouse, and church, but they are not inconsequential. This is a series in which the labour of a mother giving birth to a child is of greater supernatural significance than the outcome of a battle, where a girl slipping bread crusts to household gods does more to forge alliances than the political machinations of men in Moscow palaces. I have praised this kind of emphasis in fiction before, and I’m very pleased to see it’s becoming more prevalent.

This is a series that revels in its darkness. There is no attempt to soften or humanise Morozko (although Arden does make use of one of my favourite tropes: the monster who loves a human for her humanity, and the human who loves a monster for his monstrosity, who are able to reach an uneasy accommodation of humanity and monstrosity together), and the cruel harshness of the landscape and the capricious beings that inhabit it is constantly reiterated. But these are the indifferent cruelties of nature, which is indiscriminate in the hurt it causes. True viciousness in Arden’s works is reserved for human beings, who make their own choice to be violent or hurtful. And then, fairytale-like in its contrast is the shining, luminous goodness of those like Vasya, whose integrity and moral courage light the way through fear, and danger, and darkness.

Pressing on boundaries June 2, 2018

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

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

Cover - Hild

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

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

Authorities and adaptations May 17, 2018

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

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

cover-tea-master.jpg

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

Cover - Surface Breaks

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

Cover - Queens of Innis Lear

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