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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.

The heart is hard to translate; it has a language of its own December 9, 2012

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I kept flipping incredulously back to the publication details when I was reading The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay. I couldn’t believe it was published in 1995. It was so perceptive, so prophetic in what it was saying, that I was shocked that it had been written in a pre-9/11 world. I guess it confirms what we’ve known all along: that there is nothing new in history, and that people have been fighting and losing the same battles over and over again.

Kay’s books tend to be set at turning-points, at times and in places where a small event sets off a chain reaction and leaves the world an entirely different place. Thus we have The Sarantine Mosaic, set in an imaginary Byzantium around the time of the sixth century AD, and The Last Light of the Sun, set in an imaginary Britain during the time of the Viking invasions. The Lions of Al-Rassan takes place in a part of this imaginary world modelled on Moorish Spain in its dying days.

Just as in our world, Al-Rassan, and the neighbouring kingdoms of Esperaña, are inhabited by people of three different religious faiths – the Asharites (standing in for Muslims), the Jaddites (Christians) and the Kindath (Jews). And just as in our world, people of all three faiths exist along a spectrum of tolerance and extremism (although with the Jewish analogue group, as in Moorish Spain, enjoying a much more precarious existence than their Muslim and Christian counterparts). When life is comfortable, tolerance holds sway, but as soon as things start to get difficult, the extremists find their voice. And things are taking a turn for the worse in Al-Rassan.

We are guided through this this world by representatives of all three faiths: Jehane, a Kindath doctor, Rodrigo, a Jaddite soldier, and Ammar, an Asharite poet, courtier and assassin. For various reasons, all three find themselves exiled to the Al-Rassan kingdom of Ragosa at the same time, and their lives – and the lives of the peoples and kingdoms for whom they are representatives – intertwine in various ways. All three exemplify what is best about their respective peoples, as well as demonstrating the value of the world they inhabit. And all three are powerless to stop this world ending, becoming swept up in the collapse of Al-Rassan and the Esperañan reconquest.

All this makes The Lions of Al-Rassan sound very cold-blooded and distant, and yet reading it is an intensely emotional experience. This is, in part, due to the quality of the characters, who are vividly alive and accessible. But it’s also due to the conflict Kay sets up, and how invested the reader becomes in it. This is not a conflict between Al-Rassan and Esperaña or between Asharites and Jaddites, although some characters think or pretend that it is. Rather, it is a conflict between two world views, which are represented on both sides of the Asharite-Jaddite divide.

‘What is worse than ugliness?’
‘You do not really mean that,’ Rodrigo said. ‘I have part of an answer, though. Worse, is when what little space there is for men to move back and forth between worlds disappears because the worlds are lost to hatred.’

On the one hand we have the historical Al-Rassan, a beacon of science, literature, art, culture and education, and people – both in Al-Rassan and Esperaña – who see these things as valuable. On the other, we have intolerance, greed, anti-intellectualism, and people who hate and fear plurality and empathy. The main characters know that this struggle is at their doorsteps, but they are like driftwood caught up in a flood that they cannot control.

Even if you do not know the history of Moorish Spain, it is inevitable from the beginning of the book how things are going to end. In spite of this, The Lions of Al-Rassan is incredibly tense reading. And while the ending is bittersweet rather than depressing, there is something incredibly hurtful about watching people desperately try to save all the things you hold dear from utter destruction at the hands of people who cannot see their value.

Failed analogies, weak narrative, wasted opportunities: Season 1 of The Legend of Korra June 21, 2012

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[Note: this review is sprinkled with spoilers for both The Legend of Korra and Avatar: The Last Airbender.]

When I think of all the good things The Legend of Korra had going for it (a pre-existing world with lots of potential for further storytelling, a creative team who’d achieved something miraculous with their previous work, an active, engaged, enthusiastic and appreciative fandom) and how it failed to make use of those things in any substantial way, I feel a profound sense of disappointment. In some ways, perhaps, the success of Avatar: The Last Airbender (hereafter ATLA) could have been more of a hindrance than a help to the team behind Korra, since they apparently went out of their way to avoid everything that was characteristic of ATLA in the spin-off series. There are many grounds for criticising Korra; I’ve seen some excellent posts taking the show to task for sexism, for Mako’s characterisation, for the reduction of Lin Beifong to Tenzin’s ex-girlfriend. It would be worth poking around on the ‘korra’ tag on Tumblr as there’s a lot of excellent meta along those lines there. What I want to focus on here, however, is what I see as a broader failure on the part of the writers to create a rich, engaging or meaningful narrative. The characterisation issues I mentioned can be included under this larger umbrella problem of narrative failure.

I really didn’t want to be that fan. You know, the one taking creators of a spin-off to task because the spin-off is nothing like its parent text. But the problem is not so much that Korra isn’t ATLA but rather that Korra lacks the ingredients that made ATLA so successful. As I see it, ATLA’s quality rested on the interplay of four elements (see what I did there?). These were:
1. A cast of rounded, complex, human characters whose actions made sense in relation to their characterisation, who changed over the course of the series and who drew us into their world;
2. A completely three-dimensional, endlessly fascinating setting that reflected the diversity of backgrounds and experiences of the people who lived in it;
3. An engaging narrative which kept you watching and kept surprising you; and
4. Themes and real-world analogies that resonated but could be interpreted in multiple ways and on multiple levels.

Korra lacks all of these things.

Let’s start with characterisation. One of the things that drew me into ATLA was its fascinating array of diverse, fully-rounded characters who each had their own struggles, desires and arcs that were resolved over the course of the series. Thus, Aang, struggling to balance his playful and compassionate personality with his duty as Avatar and his responsibility towards the entire planet. Katara, filled with rage at her mother’s death, a burning desire to succeed as a waterbender and a tendency to mother everyone around her. Sokka, a skeptic in a world of mystics, labouring under a false belief in a certain kind of masculinity and desperate to prove himself to his absent father. Toph, filled with confidence but treated like an invalid. Zuko, unable to live up to his father’s expectations. Azula, the product of a terrible upbringing. Ty Lee, always overlooked. Mai, forced by her parents to repress all emotions. Even secondary characters like Suki and Jet, or those who appear in only several episodes, have comprehensible motivations, distinct personalities and complete character arcs. And the major characters learn from their experiences and change, but they don’t have personality transplants. The beauty of ATLA was that characters grew by recognising the essential aspects of their personalities and channeling them in a productive way. (Hence, Katara’s motherliness becomes a source of strength as she’s able to support Zuko in his fight with Azula and know when to step in and save the day, Aang faces his fears and confronts Ozai, but without neglecting his cherished beliefs, and my beloved Sokka realises that there are many different ways to perform masculinity, and the way where you share your strengths with awesome women and let them make up for your weaknesses is the best. And so on.) And the narrative gave them time to transform. Season One Zuko is very different to Season Two Zuko, who is different again from mid-Season Three Zuko, for example.

But in Korra, the characters start out fairly roughly drawn, and then don’t change. Korra is still headstrong and unfocused. Asami is still a characterless cipher. Lin gains no depth upon the discover that she and Tenzin used to be a couple. Mako seems simply a prize to be fought over by Korra and Asami, while Bolin has no discernible personality beyond being funny and friendly. What is frustrating is that each character had potential. There was a story in how Mako felt responsible for his brother Bolin and how he learnt to recognise Bolin’s competence. There should have been a story about the deaths of Bolin and Mako’s parents. The fact that one was a firebender and one was an earthbender in a world still reeling from Fire Nation aggression should have been brought to the fore. But instead they’re merely killed by Republic City criminals in order to get them out of the way so that Mako and Bolin can be standard fantasy adventure story orphans. There was a story in Asami’s relationship with her father. And above all, there should have been a story in Korra’s journey towards becoming the kind of Avatar her era needed. But none of this has happened. All we’re left with is a series of events in which one character or another does something awesome and brave. That’s all very well, but when the end result is merely that every character can be described as ‘badass’, we have a problem.

And that problem lies in the narrative. Quite simply, not enough happens. In a twenty-two-episode show, slow pacing is understandable. In a shorter season, it’s unforgivable. Way too much time was wasted on the pro-bending. It should have been a small background detail, but instead it tied up the narrative for the first half of the series. More emphasis should have been given to the fact that Korra – like every Avatar before her, it seems – is stuck dealing with problems caused by the previous Avatar. Above all, the narrative should give her reasons to grow and change. The problem is, the writers were backed into a corner by the fact that Korra (along with all the other characters) lacked much of a personality to begin with. And if you’re going to set your entire series in one location, you’d better make sure that this is supplemented with bucketloads of character growth.

This brings me to my third point. One of the best things about ATLA was the mobility of the central characters. They were constantly travelling, and this meant that the viewers managed to see and experience the myriad cultures that made up this richly-imagined world. We saw how the whole world fit together, how different places affected each other, and how the characters were transformed by the places they visited. Who can forget Sokka donning Kyoshi warrior makeup and learning not to be such a sexist idiot? Or Zuko going on a date in Ba Sing Se and realising that the Fire Nation was just one part of a rich and wonderful world? Or Mai in the Boiling Rock, discovering the strength within herself to stand up to Azula?

The problem with setting an entire show in Republic City is not the static location per se, but rather the fact that the writers aren’t doing enough to make the city interesting. They seem more concerned with saturating us with what they think is cool about the world 70 years post-ATLA (metalbending police force! pro bending! predatory criminal gangs! technology!) rather than showing how all those things evolved out ATLA society and fit together, and how these things shape the characters.

Which brings me to my next point: the massive analogy fail which is the Equalists. Like many things in Korra, the idea behind the Equalists is interesting and good, but poorly executed. It makes sense that people without bending power would be resentful of those who had – we saw it with Sokka, after all. Except ATLA was full of examples of people who had worked out ways to get the best of those with bending abilities. Suki and the other Kyoshi warriors, Ty Lee, Mai, Jet and his rebels, the Machinist and even Sokka himself by the end of the series are more than a match for even the most talented of benders. Even the Fire Nation colonial forces were an example of benders and non-benders working together towards a common goal. Yes, Amon is annoyed at benders on a personal level because they took his bending away, and people are resentful because benders have formed criminal gangs, but it’s never portrayed as being reasonable anger.

This is where the analogy failure comes in. It’s pretty clear that Republic City is meant to be an analogue to a cosmopolitan Chinese city in the ’20s – Shanghai, probably. Which gives the Equalists the unfortunate implication of being an analogue to the Chinese communist movement. Which, well, no. Leaving aside the later horrors committed by the Communist regime when it was in power, the movement – like most left-wing movements of the time – arose out of a genuine sense of anger at the inequalities and injustices of society at the time. Right-wing critics of Evil Socialism™ always portray it as a movement of bitter people who resent the abilities and possessions of others and want to take those abilities and possessions away in order to reduce everyone to the same level. As a social democrat, I say ‘huh’? What most people to the left of the political spectrum want is to create a system where everyone starts on an equal footing. Not by taking things away from those with power, but by enabling those without power to have those things too. The Equalist analogy doesn’t work. (For it to work, they’d have to be giving bending to everyone, not taking it away.)

From this rather ranty post, you’d think I hate Korra. If I hated it, I would have stopped watching. What I feel, overwhelmingly, is disappointment. ATLA was so good, so rich and rewarding. I fell in love with its world and its characters, I cried at their pain and rejoiced in their hard-earned victories. I feel completely detached from the characters of Korra. I think the Airbabies are adorable, and I find the fight scenes breathtaking and the artwork pretty. But I don’t appreciate anything on a deeper level. My overall impression of Korra that it is a rushed, circumscribed and superficial series. I wouldn’t mind so much, but compared to ATLA, which was well-paced, boundless and full of depth, it feels like such a waste.

It’s about power March 2, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hold your colour October 23, 2011

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

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

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

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

Fridged daughters, wayward sons June 13, 2011

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I finally feel able to put down a few scattered thoughts about the latest season of Supernatural. [Naturally, these thoughts will be full of spoilers.] Before I do so, however, let’s get this out of the way: Supernatural has an appalling track record in matters of race and gender. Pretty much every female character and PoC on the show has been killed.* The treatment of Lisa in this season amounted to little more than depicting her as a vehicle for Dean’s moral development, and the way her story ended was disgraceful. Supernatural always has been the story of a bunch of straight, white men.** I recognise this, I know it’s wrong, and I wish it could be otherwise. With that said, I am now going to speak exclusively about what happened to these straight, white men in the show’s most recent season.

One of the reasons it’s taken me so long to write anything about Supernatural‘s latest season is that the reactions and rhetoric among different segments of the fandom have been particularly vitriolic and I wanted to let the dust settle and my thoughts collect themselves before saying anything myself. Broadly speaking, there have been two reactions to the season finale, representing two major groups within the fandom: fans of Castiel (who may or may not be Cas/Dean shippers) and those who view Castiel as a one-season character who diverts from the show’s true purpose, the story of the two brothers (who may or may not be Wincest fans).

Their reactions can be summed up thus: Castiel had no choice but to do what he did, Dean is a terrible and ungrateful person, because everything Cas did, he did out of love for Dean (and, to a lesser extent, Sam and Bobby), which is the attitude of the Cas fans, and that Cas did something unforgivable, Dean has been betrayed and now the show can return to its roots, which is the attitude of the anti-Cas faction.

I think both sides have a point. When I was reviewing Season 5, over on Livejournal, I made the point that, at its heart, Supernatural is a show about communication, with characters who for various reasons find communication extremely difficult:

The characters in Supernatural – the Winchester brothers, and an ever-changing group of others (I hesitate to call them ‘secondary characters’) – are misfits because they struggle with emotions and connections. They cannot deal with, process or express emotions, and they cannot form meaningful relationships – or rather, they struggle to articulate how much said meaningful relationships mean to them. Everything is so repressed and bottled up insides – feelings (of fear, of self-hatred, of rage, of despair) and words are internalised, never demonstrated or spoken. On watching it, I was struck by how, for the main characters (Dean in particular, but all of them have it to a certain extent), words seemed to be forced out with great effort as a sort of desperate, last resort. Unlike the characters of a Whedon show, who use words as weapons both defensive and offensive, the Winchesters and their gang are repeatedly tricked, deceived and manipulated by words, and as such, they don’t trust them.

This emphasis on communication continues in Season 6. I was repeatedly struck by how easily all their problems would be resolved if the characters could’ve just spoken honestly to one another. Instead, they keep things from one another. They justify this by saying it’s for the other characters’ own good. And so Dean is kept in the dark about Sam’s resurrection because he has supposedly earned a picket-fence existence with Lisa as a reward for stopping the apocalypse and should be left in peace. Cas doesn’t tell the brothers about his deal with Crowley in order to spare their feelings, and he doesn’t let them have a great deal of knowledge about his conflict with Raphael, which is mostly kept off-screen. Dean tries to keep the true danger of reensoulment from Sam, and above all, no one speaks openly to one another.

Cas was backed into a corner, but not because of Dean’s ingratitude. He had spent the past two seasons enjoying a crash course in moral ambiguity at the side of the Winchesters, and yet is completely unable to comprehend why this most recent piece of moral ambiguity (making a deal with the devil, essentially) is intolerable to them. If he had given them greater access to the true horror of what he faced, he wouldn’t have fallen into this trap.

The Winchesters, and in more recent seasons, Castiel, are repeatedly shown that united they are invincible, divided they fall. I suspect that Bobby – the least damaged and only sensible main character on the show – knows this already, but, due to the whole communication problem, is unable to satisfactorily convey this to the others. Just as the Supernatural characters cannot talk, they cannot listen. They are slowly learning from their mistakes, but until the learn this one thing, I don’t see much in the way of sunshine and happiness for any of them.

______________________________
* The exception is Becky, but since she’s a meta-character whose purpose is to reflect and interrogate the show’s fans, I wouldn’t read too much into this.
**And how interesting it might’ve been if Sam or Dean (or both) had been female. Instead of a show about two brothers, one dutiful, one rebellious, we could’ve had a dutiful sister, or a younger sister keen to escape the family and live out in the world. Oh well.

Thou art all ice June 10, 2011

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I thought I would like Kate Elliott’s novel Cold Magic because I’ve adored everything she’s written. I thought I would like it because it was steampunk alternate history where the Little Ice Age was more significant than in our own world, where the Phoenecians were the cultural and political equivalent of the Jews in ours with magic and descendants of dinosaurs and an awesome protagonist and did I mention the DINOSAURS?

But after reading it, I realised that I liked it because it was like Northanger Abbey. [Spoilers for both books follow.]

There is a reason Northanger Abbey is my favourite Jane Austen novel. It is about – and for – girls like me. Like Catherine Morland, I was a teenager ‘in training for a heroine’. It is THE book about girls who read instead of live, and who wish that they could live the kinds of stories they read. And it pokes fun at them mercilessly. And it is hilarious.

In Northanger Abbey, the joke is on Catherine. She thinks she’s living a gothic novel, and the reader knows she isn’t. In Cold Magic, the joke is kind of on everyone.

I’m not going to discuss the (frankly awesome) worldbuilding in Cold Magic because that’s already been done, and better than I could do. Suffice it so say that the alternate world in this book is one where much of northern Europe (and presumably Asia and America) is still covered with ice, Britain is joined to continental Europe, the American continent is populated by the (sentient) descendants of dinosaurs, Carthage was not defeated by Rome and remained a significant power, the African continent is largely abandoned and its people moved to settle in Europe, creating a kind of awesome African-Celtic culture, the Industrial Revolution is dawning, and, oh yeah, magic exists. There are various aristocratic Houses of ‘cold mages’, whose power (and, indeed, mere presence) snuffs out any flames in the vicinity, as well as lowering the temperature of their surroundings. The mages hate and fear the steam-powered new industry and are hated and feared by the non-magical populace. Out of this rather marvellous set up step cousins Cat and Bee Hassi Barahal, who live sheltered lives of genteel poverty, attending classes at the local academy (in, among other things, aeronautical science), sneaking around attempting to learn the secrets of their elders (the Hassi Barahal are, essentially, a family of spies) and, in the case of Bee, admiring various young men from a distance. The two cousins are close friends and love one another deeply. One night, a mysterious stranger, Andevai Diarisso Haranwy, arrives at the Hassi Barahal house to claim a boon: he’s a cold mage, and the eldest Hassi Barahal daughter was promised to his House. He and Cat are hastily married, and she is dragged off into a terrifying adventure with danger at every turn.

At this point, you may be wondering what any of this has to do with Northanger Abbey. Cat isn’t the romantic dreamer of her family: her cousin Bee is. Cat is practical and sensible, self-deprecating and intelligent. She does not appear to have ever been in love or even had a crush before Andevai whisks her off to be his wife.

And it is for precisely this reason that Cold Magic is like Northanger Abbey. I’m going out on a limb here, but I have the feeling that Elliott wrote this book with certain assumptions about her readers. She assumed that most of them were readers of romance novels or at least romantic fantasy novels and were fans of (or at least familiar with) stories where good girls and bad boys fall in love. She assumed that we would read Cat and Andevai in this manner. And then she gleefully toys with our expectations for the remainder of the book.

And although Cat is a reader (and in particular a reader of stories of adventure and discovery) and is filled with curiosity about cold mages before she’s married off, she doesn’t assume she’s living an adventure story (and indeed is annoyed and terrified to discover that she’s doing so). Instead, it’s the book’s readers who assume that they’re reading a particular type of fantasy novel (namely one where adversity transforms a bickering thrown-together-by-accident couple into a pair of loving soulmates) and are amused to discover that something else is going on entirely.

Cold Magic expects its readers to be dangerously genre savvy. It expects us to read two characters (mad, bad, dangerous to know Heathcliff type, and scholarly, bookish courageous Beatrice-from-Much Ado About Nothing type) in a certain way, and draw certain conclusions. And then it makes us laugh at our own geeky bookishness.

There’s nothing cruel about the mockery, though. It’s more like a celebration, a sense of self-deprecating camaraderie, an acknowledgement of shared literary culture. It’s funny precisely because we know this kind of shy-girl-meets-damaged-boy love story is as ridiculous as it is enjoyable, and because we’re a little bit sheepish about enjoying it, but not so sheepish as to deny ourselves to opportunity to read it when it arises.

Northanger Abbey is a story about a girl who thinks she’s living in a gothic novel and isn’t. Cold Magic is a story for people who see certain tropes, think they’re reading a certain type of fantasy novel, and aren’t. The results are hilarious.

‘Oh, this book. Oh, my HEART.’ May 12, 2011

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, childhood, fangirl, life, memories.
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This was my involuntary response after (and during) reading Savage City, the third book in Sophia McDougall’s Romanitas trilogy. I read the book with a kind of desperate, yearning hunger. I’d been waiting for it for several years, I loved its characters (in particular, its heroine, fierce, introverted, determined Una), and I couldn’t bear not knowing how things would end.

The last time I read a book like that, I was 22, and it was the final Harry Potter book. I think this is significant, because the last time before that, I would’ve been in high school, reading Darksong, the follow-up to Isobelle Carmody’s Darkfall. And, indeed, this was the way I read all my favourite books, as a child and teenager.

I devoured them, much the same way as Sara Crewe (a childhood heroine) is said to ‘devour books’ in A Little Princess. Their characters were as real, as close to me, as real people. Their lives mattered as much or more. I felt every blow that landed upon them, and I wanted their happiness with a fierceness that I couldn’t even believe I was capable of feeling. When I read those books, curled up in the wing chair in the living room, my feet resting on the coffee table, as a child and teenager in Canberra, I was oblivious to everything else, as my family will attest. I didn’t hear when people spoke to me. I didn’t notice when the natural light disappeared. My heart-rate increased. My mouth was dry. I was terrified for the characters.

I’m so much more detached these days. Oh, I still enjoy books, and I still find books that I love, but it is a different kind of love, a different kind of enjoyment. Less emotional investment and identification, more literary analysis and serenity. More thinking, less feeling.

I cannot regret these changes. They snuck up on me as quietly and imperceptibly as the day I looked at my old dolls and realised I no longer knew how to play. That girl, who cried for three days without stopping upon reading the ending of The Amber Spyglass, who rewrote Catherine Jinks’ Pagan Chronicles because she couldn’t bear not knowing what happened to Pagan, who finished the sixth Harry Potter book and then sat on the floor, literally beating her fists on the floorboards, begging her sister and mother to finish the book so she could talk to someone, anyone, about what had just happened, she is both me, and not me. I lived like that, I felt like that, it shaped me and strengthened me and taught me.

She was me, she is me, and I love her. But she is mostly gone.

And that is why I am so grateful to Romanitas, and to Sophia McDougall. She has written something that allowed me to get back, if only for a few hours, to that place, to that girl, once more. It was wonderful. It was perfect. It could never have been any other way. But it was exhausting. Loving in such a fierce, desperate, focused way, caring that much, feeling that much – I honestly don’t know how I did it.

One voice January 2, 2011

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, childhood, fangirl.
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[Spoilers for Earthsong by Victor Kelleher.]

Kelleher’s second book in the Parkland trilogy is more ambitious than its predecessor, and, perhaps because of this, is somewhat less successful. As a child, I reread Earthsong less than the other two books in the trilogy, although I cannot remember exactly what it was that failed to appeal to me.

As with Parkland, Earthsong is set in a dystopian future. In this book, global warming made Earth uninhabitable for human beings, who, after trying various ways to remain (including building colonies under the sea) despite the dangerous atmospheric conditions, migrated to Titan, the largest moon of Saturn, which is supposed to have conditions similar to early Earth and which in the book was terraformed to make it inhabitable for human beings. After several centuries, the off-worlders decide to send human beings back to Earth in the form of frozen embryos, in order to repopulate it. Travelling with these embryos are teenagers Anna and Joe, who are given the grandiose title ‘the First Parents’.

Straight away, things go wrong. The heat shields on Anna and Joe’s ship (a sentient being named Walter) are damaged, causing them to crash-land thousands of kilometres away from where the transport ships (carrying the embryos) have landed. Worse, Walter himself is damaged by the landing and undergoes a personality change of sorts, transforming from an impersonal, intelligent machine into a crazed, spiritual being who seems overwhelmed by life on Earth. He becomes, in fact, a shamanic figure. Accompanying Anna and Joe are two other robots, Trog (whose name evokes troglodytes, of course), who is no-nonsense and practical, and Og, who speaks in parables, quotes and sayings.

While Anna and Joe at first think they have a straightforward journey to retrieve the transport ships and begin the project of repopulating Earth, it quickly becomes apparent that Earth has changed in the absence of humans. All its animal life, from rats and cats to snakes and sharks, seems to possess sentience and consciousness. Animals that previously lived solitary lives seem to have developed the ability to live commnunally and organise themselves like humans. Anna and Joe find themselves in constant conflict with the fauna. Fearful and harried on all sides by vicious attacks by animals such as rats, eagles and lizards, they proceed slowly. All the while, Walter seems away with the fairies, speaking of the voices he can hear and spouting mystical insights into the nature of the universe and humanity. He claims that he hears the whole earth speaking with one voice, which he calls the voice of God or good (it’s not clear, as his own ability to speak is compromised by this point and he constantly jumbles his words. The confusion between God and good is, of course, deliberate on Kelleher’s part, as Kelleher cannot resist a bit of theological confusion).

After an encounter with some whales that have developed the ability to talk in Morse code, Anna and Joe discover the truth of this brave new Earth: the sea colonies, knowing that they were going to die, made a fateful decision to splice human genes into those of all living beings on Earth. This meant that all creatures – and even some large trees – eventually developed human characteristics: the ability to reason, to live in groups and work for the common good, to defer gratification, in short to be conscious. Unfortunately, these characteristics seem to only manifest themselves as the worst, most destructive human qualities: brutality, dog-eat-dog competition, cruelty.  The whales speak with horror of ‘the swarms’, which, it is soon revealed, are insects – with human intelligence – that, by virtue of superior numbers, presumably – hold the rest of creation in their sway.

[H]uman guile and cunning had taken on monstrous shape. Yes, human guile and cunning, that was what they were up against. And human kindness? Human compassion? What had happened to those qualities? Had they somehow fled the world? Had they been lost – left out perhaps – when the human genes governing intelligence were spliced into the rest of creation? Had the last colonies passed on only their aggression and their drive for dominance? Was this the truth behind the one mind, the one voice, Walter had referred to? It was a horrible thought which she flinched away from. A world without love! Without gentleness or care or fellow feeling! She could not bring herself to face such a prospect.

Victor Kelleher, Earthsong, pp. 219-220.

Leaving the science aside, it’s worth stopping and considering this concept for a moment. Can you even begin to imagine what it would be like to live in a planet where every living being possessed the worst characteristics of humanity, and human intelligence? In Kelleher’s imagination, it would be horrific – a dangerous and threatening place of constant war. It is so bad that Anna and Joe are uncertain as to whether they ought to animate the embryos, horrified at the thought of bringing up children in a world of conflict and danger.

Meanwhile, Walter embarks on a mission to communicate with the swarms, hoping to convince them – and, by extension, the other inhabitants of Earth – of the value of peaceful coexistence.  He is adamant that if people – by which he means all living and sentient beings – could just communicate better, the world would be a harmonious place for all.  Anna and Joe, besieged by the swarms, have almost given up hope, but Walter is ultimately successful, and the book ends with Earth poised on the brink of a newer, gentler future.  On the surface, Earthsong is thus a much gentler and more hopeful book than Parkland, but as is usual with Kelleher, there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface.

Humanity Because Kelleher defines humanity as consciousness, his definition of humanity in Earthsong is much broader than in Parkland, encompassing all creation.  While indulging in many descriptive pages of the horrors of an Earth populated in this manner – the scenes where Anna and Joe are besieged by lizards, rats, snakes, bats and insects are like something out of a horror movie – he ultimately arrives at a rather cheerful, hippy-like understanding of how this might work.  If we are all human, we all speak with one voice, and if we could only listen to this voice and speak to one another, we would live in peace, tranquility and harmony.

This is obviously meant to be a metaphor for the present state of affairs on Earth – that we, as people, must turn away from the violence and greed in our natures and recognise our common humanity if we are to escape destruction.  This is all very well and good, but it strikes me, as it struck me when I first read Earthsong, as overly optimistic.  And if ‘humanity’ means all beings on Earth, this only complicates matters. How are we to recognise our common ‘humanity’ if we’re all eating one another, for example?

Responsibility If Kelleher falls somewhat short in his exploration of the theme of humanity in Earthsong, he truly succeeds in the theme of responsibility.  This book is, in a sense, all about responsibility.  In particular, it is about the peculiar nature of human responsibility: the greatest responsibility we have is that towards future generations, and yet this requires us to make decisions for a future of which we are entirely unaware.* And these decisions will, of course, affect and shape that future.

Joe and Anna initially deplore the actions of the sea colonies: knowing that they (the sea colonies) were going to die out, they were freed from the responsibility of behaving responsibly:

The underwater colonies had acted irresponsibly, distributing their genes throughout a planet without the thought for the consequences. […] Despite her disapproval of what the last people had done, she couldn’t bring herself to blame them. In their place, faced with extinction, she might well have done the same.  After all, to live on in other creatures was better than nothing.

Victor Kelleher, Earthsong, p. 168.

Most horrifically, of course, Joe and Anna are forced to suffer the consequences of decisions made by these ancient people, who did not take responsibility for their actions.  The parallels between this book, and our own world, are fairly clear.

Freedom As I began this section, the book The Stone Gods by Jeanette Winterson popped into my head. That book is all about humanity’s destructive nature, and how we would like to be able to start again, with a blank canvas, a clean slate, a new Eden, and how that probably isn’t possible. Earthsong seems be be set on such a blank canvas, an Earth healed and cleansed of the effects of humanity’s brutal destruction – but of course it isn’t.

I think we all like to imagine that if we had the freedom to begin again, we’d do things differently, we’d be better, gentler, kinder. Kelleher, in his way, is warning us that there are no second chances.  Even an Earth wiped of all human beings is not free from human influence.  We may not have a Titan to retreat to, and we certainly won’t have an Earth to return to, so we need to start thinking about what sort of future our decisions might make.

The final book in this trilogy, Fire Dancer, is in many ways the most intriguing, because it is not set in the future but rather our distant past.  In it, two human beings have the extraordinary and terrible responsibility of having to make decisions knowing full well what effect they will have on the future. I will be reviewing it some time early next week.

_____________________

* Being who I am, this makes my thoughts turn to religion, and in particular the story of the Fall.  The parallels – between the story of Adam and Eve, Anna and Joe and the sea colonies – are apparent to me, although I might be reading too many things into this.  Faced with extinction, the sea colonies had to make a decision about a future in which they had no stake, while Anna and Joe also had to make a decision on behalf of the unborn embryos for which they are responsible.  Being human – like Adam and Eve – they possess free will, but they do not possess the ability to comprehend the outcomes of their actions and decisions.  Anna and Joe, like their Biblical counterparts, are the first parents, while the sea people are the end of their genetic line, of course.  I need to think further about what all these connections mean.

Announcement: Victor Kelleher Week December 27, 2010

Posted by dolorosa12 in announcements, books.
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Hello, dear readers! It’s been a while. I hope you all are enjoying your holidays!

Back at the start of the year, I had grand plans for this blog. They included a semi-regular segment on ‘under-appreciated authors’, where I was planning to plead the case for authors I love that no one else seems to have heard of. This segment never materialised, due to various things (mainly the fact that I was writing a PhD, as well as a bunch of conference papers, and editing an academic journal). However, now that I’ve got a bit of spare time, I’d like to propose something slightly less ambitious: Victor Kelleher Week.

Victor Kelleher is one of my favourite authors, and has been since I was a child. I credit his books with playing a major role in my philosophical, moral and intellectual development. Although his books are often taught in Australian secondary schools, very few people seem to share my high opinion of him, and he is not widely known outside Australia.

At this point, I’m intending to re-read Parkland, Earthsong and Fire Dancer, which form a loosely-linked trilogy (‘about humanity, responsibility and freedom’, their blurbs inform me), and post about each of the three books. Aside from The Beast of Heaven (which is a book for adults), these are my three favourite Kelleher novels, and they are probably most representative of his work. If everything goes smoothly, I might try doing this for other, ‘underappreciated’ authors.

I hope you enjoy Victor Kelleher Week!