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We are not things November 17, 2018

Posted by dolorosa12 in blogging, books, meta, reviews.
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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.

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Hope in the ruins November 3, 2018

Posted by dolorosa12 in blogging, books, reviews.
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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.

Tell them stories, twenty years on October 17, 2017

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

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

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

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

Sisters, you can still stand tall September 1, 2017

Posted by dolorosa12 in blogging, books, meta, reviews.
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I’m the oldest of five sisters, so I’m always on the lookout for stories that reflect my own experience of sisterhood: stories about groups of girls whose personalities may be very different, but whose shared childhood engenders a closeness and a strong sense of mutual support, even if they don’t always understand one another. Unfortunately, the majority of the stories I’ve encountered that explore sibling relationships seem to prioritise brothers (or brothers and sisters), or, if they focus on sisters, emphasise the antagonistic elements of their relationship, as if unwilling to admit that sisters can be supportive of and close to each other. The three books I’m reviewing today, however, were exactly what I wanted: stories with sisters (or, in one case, two girls who were like sisters in every way but blood) front and centre, and stories where sisters were sources of support and strength to each other.

Cover-Five Daughters of the Moon

Leena Likitalo’s novel, The Five Daughters of the Moon is the first in a fantasy duology reimagining the events leading up to the Russian revolution, from the perspective of five sisters roughly analogous with the Romanov princesses. This being a fantasy retelling, however, there are various interesting twists to historical events: some of the sisters have supernatural abilities, others are caught up in the revolutionary movement sweeping their country, and theirs is a matriarchal monarchy ruled by their mother, who is ‘married’ to the moon (a deity in their religion) and takes various lovers to be the earthly fathers of her children. Some of these elements work better than others, and where the story is weakest, to my mind, is in its interpretation of the causes of unrest and revolution, and in its depiction of a Rasputin-like figure (fiendish, terrifying, creator of supernatural automata to control the royal sisters, and secretly masterminding the revolution for his own gain). I’ve always been uneasy with the way some writers seem to interpret revolutions as inherently unjust, unnecessary, and the fault of ignorant people jealous of the wealth and power of their superiors and being manipulated into violent unrest by villains keen to create chaos in order to advance their own interests. It’s why I gave up on The Legend of Korra after one season. Unfortunately, Likitalo takes this line with the revolution brewing in The Five Daughters of the Moon.

The book is stronger in its depiction of the relationship between the five sisters: Celestia, heir to the throne and burdened by the weight of expectation and responsibility, Elise, soft-hearted and burning with revolutionary fevour, Sibilia, stuck in the middle and uncomfortably suspended between childhood and adulthood and impatient with this status, Merile, who cares more for animals than people, and the fey, fragile Alina. They’ve all led a sheltered existence, and over the course of the book their eyes are opened, and they learn to draw strength and courage from each other. It will be interesting to see how things conclude in the second book, and despite my dissatisfaction with Likitalo’s interpretation of revolution, her exploration of the relationships between the five sisters is enough to keep me reading.

Cover-Jewel Lapidary

Fran Wilde’s novella, The Jewel and Her Lapidary, takes place in a land ruled by Jewels — those who wear gemstones imbued with great power — and whose rule is upheld by Lapidaries, who possess the ability to harness the power of the gemstones. The relationship between a Jewel and their Lapidary is thus deeply symbiotic, with the power firmly in the hands of the Lapidary. Those who can harness the gemstones have the ability to reshape the land — but also control the minds and realities of others, and the survival of their realm thus depends on their honesty and good intentions. Unfortunately, the land’s vast wealth, and its pacifism make it a tempting target, and the young Jewel Lin and her Lapidary Sima find themselves singlehandedly defending their kingdom against an invasion. Both had considered themselves to be weak, but their devotion to one another and strong sense of responsibility make them equal to the challenge of ensuring their people’s survival. While the pair are not sisters in the strictest sense, the rules of magic in the story have meant that they were raised together with fierce devotion, and are sisters in all but name. It is, in some ways, a profoundly unequal relationship: Sima has all the magical power, and her ability to manipulate the gems which Lin wears gives her a power of life and death over Lin, while at the same time the rules of their society require a Lapidary’s priority to be the safety and survival of their Jewel. The profundity of the bond which this strange relationship engenders is the key to the survival of their people, and Wilde tells a deeply poignant story in which compassion, quick thinking, and the ability to appear insignificant and weak save the day, rather than violence or even raw magical power. This was a story that left me wanting more, so I was very happy with the news that Wilde will be writing more stories in this universe in the future.

Cover-Buried Heart

Like Wilde, Kate Elliott celebrates the bonds between female characters and the kinds of power that bloom in unexpected places, and like Likitalo her book Buried Heart, the third in a YA trilogy, is concerned with revolution. Unlike Likitalo, Elliott gives nuanced voice to the legitimate cause of her revolutionaries, the people of Efua who in this book rise to overthrow their oppressive Saroese colonists. This final book contains all the best elements of the trilogy as a whole (and indeed of Elliott’s entire corpus): sweeping, epic drama of a society on the brink of profound transformation, a sincere engagement with the dehumanising effect of colonialism on both the oppressors and the oppressed, comprehensive worldbuilding that considers how a society would function on both a macro and a micro level, and the prioritising of relationships between girls and women. The latter is an utter delight, and I enjoyed in particular the depiction of Jessamy, the narrator, her sisters, and her mother Kiya, because it allowed for the exploration of so many different types of power. Jessamy herself is active in a way that is often represented: physically courageous, quick-tempered, and quick to assume positions of leadership. However, by centring so many other girls and women, Elliott doesn’t allow this to be the only kind of power and authority represented in the book. Jessamy’s disabled sister Maraya has a sharp, lawyerly mind, and is skilled at research, wading through dense documents to get to the heart of them in a way that will advance her cause. Her sister Amaya is skilled at acting, and is able to use this in order to disarm the powerful, until they dismiss her as insignificant, which is very useful in spying and gathering information. But the character who meant the most to me was Jessamy’s brilliant mother Kiya, who was given a prominence and authority rarely seen in portrayals of mothers in YA literature. Kiya’s strength comes from her identity as a mother, and all the skills we later see her deploying are those she honed as a parent: care for others, the ability to juggle multiple tasks while also looking ahead to the near and distant future, a strong sense others and their needs and motives, and the ability to console and inspire. It is because of, and not in spite of, these strengths that she becomes the leader of the revolution sweeping Efua, and it was profoundly moving to me to see a character like Kiya honoured, lauded and respected in this way. Elliott is far too sensible a writer to imply that revolutions are won or lost on the basis of their leadership alone — and indeed she devotes a great deal of time to the different groups of people who make common cause in order to fight against their oppressors. However, as unrest builds and the chance to right the wrongs that have plagued Efua since the arrival of the Saroese approaches, the revolution is in safe hands with Kiya at its head.

Books for joy September 18, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Linkpost lifts us up where we belong February 27, 2015

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This week’s linkpost is up a bit early, and contains many fabulous things.

I’m a huge fan of Sophia McDougall’s review of Birdman: over at Strange Horizons. In it, she compares the film to Boris Johnson. It’s an apt comparison.

Here’s a great interview with Samantha Shannon. ‘Cities are made of narrative’ indeed.

Aliette de Bodard’s description of her subconscious as a library is a fabulous metaphor, and one that I might steal myself!

There’s a great set of guest posts over at Ladybusiness on ‘What books are on your auto-recommend list?’ (For the record, mine are the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman, the Pagan Chronicles series by Catherine Jinks, Space Demons, Skymaze, Shinkei and Galax Arena by Gillian Rubinstein, Parkland, Earthsong, Fire Dancer and The Beast of Heaven by Victor Kelleher, the Romanitas trilogy by Sophia McDougall and the Crossroads trilogy by Kate Elliott.)

Episode 4 of Fangirl Happy Hour is up. This week Ana and Renay are talking Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear, Jupiter Ascending and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. I’m not quite as critical of S.H.I.E.L.D. as they are, while I think there’s room for difference of opinion about the feminism of Jupiter Ascending, but as always, I appreciate their thoughts.

The first few guest posts about representation and diversity are up on Jim C. Hines’ blog.

Shannon Hale talks about gender segregation at readings she’s done at schools. It’s heartbreaking.

I thoroughly enjoyed this article by Robert Macfarlane about language and landscape. Beautiful stuff.

I really liked the recent BBC adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. This interview by Julia Raeside of Claire Foy, who played Anne Boleyn, goes a long way towards explaining why.

For reasons that will soon become apparent, although I can’t provide a link to it, the #readingAuthorName hashtag on Twitter has been a powerful and positive movement. It works like this: think of an author whose works moved you and shaped you into the person you are. Tweet about it. Add the hashtag #readingAuthorName (obviously replacing AuthorName for the author’s actual name). Feel happy.