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If you link me that much you will stick around March 6, 2015

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, films, linkpost, short stories, television.
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I have so many links for you this week! My Twitter feed has been very generous in sharing its fabulous internet finds, and I’ve gathered the best of them to post here.

First up, have a couple of short stories. ‘Translatio Corporis’ by Kat Howard and ‘The Monkey House’ by Tade Thompson absolutely rocked my world. They’re published in Uncanny Magazine and Omenana respectively.

I went on a massive Twitter rant about failures of imagination in historical fantasy novels set in medieval Britain and Ireland, so I found this post on ‘Celtic fantasy’ by Liz Bourke to be very welcome and timely.

Likewise this post by Kate Elliott on writing women characters touched on a lot of things that matter to me in storytelling.

Joanne Harris makes some good points about the economics of literary festivals.

This post by Renay is very perceptive on self-rejection, anthology-curation and the difficulties in amplifying the voices of others.

I found the conversation taking place at the #WritingNewZA hashtag on South African literature really interesting.

Tricia Sullivan writes about the pitfalls of being a mother who writes. (I would say that this potentially applies to primary caregivers of any gender, but there are particularly gendered elements of the problems she’s outlining that lead me to think her emphasis on mothers specifically is correct in this instance.)

Here is a Storify of tweets by Aliette de Bodard about the fallacy of devoting your entire life to writing.

I grew up on Sara Douglass’s books, and while they’re far from perfect, she herself was a really important figure in the history of fantasy literature in Australia. Here, Australian fantasy author Fiona McIntosh remembers her.

I’ve found Abigail Nussbaum’s recent Hugo recommendation posts useful. Here’s the short fiction one, and here’s the one on publishing and fan categories.

I want to see this film!

I’m thoroughly enjoying watching Ana discover the Dark Is Rising sequence over at The Book Smugglers.

This is a good summation of what made Parks and Recreation so great, over The Mary Sue.

Finally, have an Old English text about the wonders of books.

The sun is shining and the sky is clear here in Cambridge. It looks like this weekend is going to be excellent for me, and I hope it is the same for you.

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Linkpost is all around us February 16, 2015

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This post is somewhat late, and as a result you may have seen some of the material included in it elsewhere. Hopefully, however, there will be enough new material for everyone to enjoy.

First up, a powerful post by Kari Sperring about the unseen, unromanticised ‘women’s work’ undertaken by older women. Athena Andreadis’ older post ‘Where Are the Wise Crones in Science Fiction’ is an excellent companion piece. Rounding off this trio of posts on older women, check out Catherine Lundoff’s (frequently updated) post of recommendations of SFF literature featuring older women.

I’ve really appreciated Malinda Lo’s series for Diversity In YA on perceptions of diversity in book reviews. There are currently two posts published of a three-part series.

Rachel Manija Brown is gathering recommendations for diverse literature. (Content note: discussion of abuse.)

I’m not eligible to nominate people for awards myself, but I am using Amal El-Mohtar’s nominations post as a source of recommendations.

As an Australian, I’m pleased to see that Alexandra Pierce has started writing a regular column at Tor.com on Australian and New Zealand SFF publishing news.

I’m a big fan of The Book Smugglers, as I find the blog a breath of fresh air and positivity in what can sometimes be a very negative internet. As such, I’m thrilled that their first foray into publishing has been a success, with a BSFA nomination for one of their short stories, ‘The Mussel Eaters’ by Octavia Cade.

The new issue of Lackinton’s is out. I’ve been enjoying reading through its stories, and particularly liked ‘Tiger, Baby’ by JY Yang, with art by Likhain. You can find links to further works by both writer and artist in the biographical information at the bottom of the story.

Finally, Jupiter Ascending was ridiculous, joyful fun. Kate Elliott thought so too.

Where young linkposts would meet when the flowers were in bloom February 6, 2015

Posted by dolorosa12 in blogging, fandom, linkpost.
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It’s Friday afternoon, and that means it’s high time for your weekly links. Most of these were gathered via Twitter, because I follow some fabulous people over there, and they keep finding and doing wonderful things.

A.C. Wise’s monthly post for SF Signal on women to read in SFF is filled with some great recommendations. This post is part of a series, so if you want more recommendations, you’ll be able to find them in the related posts links under the article.

Jim C. Hines is calling for guest posters to write on representation in SFF, so if you think you fit the criteria, you should definitely try and submit something. He’s already run a previous series of posts on this subject, which were collected as an ebook, the sales of which have gone to support the Carl Brandon Society’s Con or Bust programme. The call for guest posts runs until tomorrow, so get in now if you want to be included.

I’m really looking forward to Aliette de Bodard’s new Xuya short story. She’s posted an excerpt on her blog.

This post by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz about the struggles people face when trying to speak up (or even speak at all) is powerful and important.

Kate Elliott’s short-story collection The Very Best of Kate Elliott is out on the 10th February. She’s been blogging up a storm recently. I particularly appreciated her guest post at The Book Smugglers on self-rejection and the courage to say yes.

Also from Kate Elliott, ‘An Illustrated Love Letter to Smart Bitches and Trashy Books’, which does exactly what it says on the tin. I’m not a regular reader of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books (which recently celebrated its tenth birthday), but I am a firm believer in unapoletically loving the things you love, and not shaming other people for their fannish choices, so this resonated with me a lot.

This guest post on Ladybusiness by forestofglory is full of great short-fiction recommendations that I will definitely be checking out.

Finally, I went on a bit of a Twitter spree about cultish behaviour and abuse dynamics in fandom. These tweets should be considered the preliminary stage of a more detailed post that I’ve been thinking about for a while. Charles Tan was kind enough to collect my tweets together on Storify.

Happy Friday, everyone! Enjoy Armenian teenager Vika Ogannesyan singing ‘Plava Laguna’ (the opera song from The Fifth Element).

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.

Thou art all ice June 10, 2011

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, fangirl, reviews.
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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.

Get medieval November 7, 2010

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, fangirl.
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Now that the caravan has moved on and the dust has settled on the recent steampunk debate, I’d like to give you my take. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, see Charlie Stross and Catherine Valente, and Scott Westerfeld and Sophia McDougall for the defence.)

Being contrary, as well as making me feel extremely conflicted, the whole kerfuffle made me think about my own genre of choice: medieval-inspired/inflected fantasy. As much as I try to deny it, as much as I read China Miéville, Neil Gaiman, Sarah Rees Brennan and Philip Pullman, I gravitate towards flowing robes, pre-industrial societies and superstition in my fiction.

This means that I have read a lot of garbage. (I’m currently reading a book where Richard III is some kind of champion for matriarchal paganism. I kid you not.) I have read books where pre-Christian Britain and Ireland are feminist utopias (hi, Marion Zimmer Bradley and Juliet Marillier). I have read books where annoying 20th-century characters have blundered into medieval-inflected fantasy realms and spent the entire time exclaiming at the bizarre backwardness of it all, only to decide that a world without proper medical care is better than their own world. I have read books where female characters are non-existent, books where battles are won by the dazzling arrival of the one, true hero, books where everyone seems to be an aristocrat, books where the middle class is snivelling and cowardly precisely because it stands against the old feudal order (Janny Wurts, I’m looking accusingly at you). I’ve seen enough Gra’tui’tous Use of A’postro’phes to terrify even the most illiterate of butchers and greengrocers.

To put it simply, I have waded through a lot of rubbish to find the gems. But I don’t want to talk about the rubbish today. I want to talk about the gems. By this I mean medieval fantasy novels that get the medieval period right. This is obviously an extremely subjective list, but that’s what reading is all about.

1. ‘The mercantile middle class is awesome’: Kate Elliot’s Crossroads series

I still haven’t had a chance to finish this series, as the Cambridge public library doesn’t have the third book (I’ll probably read it when I’m in Sydney over Christmas, as the Sydney public libraries are far superior to the Cambridge ones), but I can safely say this is my favourite medieval fantasy series EVER. Rather than being set in generic Ye Olde Europe, it’s set in alternative versions of China, Mongolia and (if I recall correctly) the Ottoman Empire. I adore this series for two reasons: it has fantastic female characters who are believable within a patriarchal medieval framework (ie, they’re active agents, and their skills – especially their ability to negotiate and make deals in an economic context – are highly valued, but they have to operate within a system where it is still quite difficult to be a woman without the protection of a man), and because the characters are so mercenary, and it’s portrayed as realistic rather than cowardly. Honour before reason heroism is rightly portrayed as ridiculous and dangerous. Diplomacy, bargaining and bartering are heroic, society-saving qualities in this universe, and that strikes me as both realistic to its medieval setting, and incredibly refreshing. I’ve already blogged about this series here.

2. ‘Let’s hear it for the quartermasters’: Jo Walton’s Tir Tanagiri series

This is alternate-history version of the Matter of Britain. It’s set in an alternative version of Britain and Europe, where the most significant change (to my mind at least) is that there is a great deal more equality between the sexes than would’ve occurred in fifth- or sixth-century Britain. It works seamlessly, though, in a way that shows up Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon for the historically-inaccurate rant that it is.

This is because rather than hammering the point home with a hammer, Walton simply states things and then leaves them. Her heroine, Sulien ap Gwien (who is, I feel, the Lancelot analogue), is an armiger in Urdo’s (the Arthur figure) army. After the death of her brothers, she is her father’s heir. There’s no squabble or strife about this. It just is. Walton also resists the urge (common to many retellers of the Arthurian story) to focus on some epic struggle between Christian patriarchy and utopian feminist paganism. There is religious equality in Urdo’s Tir Tanagiri. There are Christians, and there are pagans. The popularity of paganism decreases, and Sulien thinks Christianity (or the followers of the ‘the White God’, as they are in this universe) is a little silly, but there’s no militancy on either side because it really isn’t the point. Survival is.

This is the reason why I really love this series. Far too often, Arthur (and heroes in his mould) win kingship too easily, simply by being ‘the chosen one’ or by being moral people or whatever. Urdo really earns it, and he doesn’t even earn it for himself. Walton forces you to confront the sheer difficulty of unifying a country like Tir Tanagiri; the series abounds with references to tactical discussions, extremely morally ambiguous diplomatic decisions and arguments among quartermasters about supply caches and so on. It’s unglamorous, it’s dirty, and, most importantly, it’s not easy.

3. ‘Grey, with a side-order of moral ambiguity’: George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire

I like this series for its gritty greyness. Almost every character does something utterly unconscionable. No character has clean boots. Most importantly, Martin emphasises that people who put honour before reason suffer the logical consequences of a dishonourable and unreasonable society. No character is safe.

There are deep flaws with this series (the one I find most troubling is that rape and sexual deviance are used as shorthand for moral depravity, which strikes me as plain lazy), but you can’t say it’s an inaccurate depiction of its Wars of the Roses source material. It absolutely sucks to be a woman in this universe. If you’re lucky, you’ll dutifully make an arranged match with someone who treats you decently, and be expected to lead his forces when he’s otherwise occupied (Catelyn Stark, who is so awesome I can’t find the words to express how much I love her character; the Catelyn-bashing among the fandom disgusts me). If you’re unlucky, you’re Arya Stark. Or Sansa Stark. Or Brienna. Or Cersei Lannister. In any case, Martin, for the most part, gets it right. (I’ve already written about this series here.)

4. ‘Poetic prophecies are just better’: Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series

I have a soft spot for this series. It’s one of the first children’s fantasy series that I read, and Cooper has a real talent for capturing the cadences and nuances of genuine medieval writing, in particular that deep minor note of melancholy at life’s transience that runs through so much of it. (Cf The Wanderer, Buile Shuibne, Accallam na Senórach, etc.) It’s so deeply rooted in the landscape – Cornwall, the Thames valley, North Wales – that it is in some sense a love letter to the geography and topography of Britain.

It has rather a more simplistic view of the nature of evil than children’s literature these days (although Cooper does point out that evil can be both chaos and fanaticism, which is slightly more adventurous than many of her contemporaries), but in my opinion that’s not really the point of the book. Instead, Cooper’s focus is power, and what a terrible and terrifying burden it can be for those who wield it. This is, obviously, not a hugely original theme, but she explores it well, and that’s all that matters.

5. ‘There’s a magic in the simple things’: Monica Furlong’s Juniper and Wise Child

I believe there’s a third book in this series called Colman but I have not read it and so I don’t include it in my analysis. These books are about young adolescent girls who become witches. The first is Ninnoc, known as Juniper, the daughter of King Mark of Cornwall (I’m not sure if his name is meant to deliberately evoke the character from the story of Tristan and Isolde, since his wife, Erlain, seems quite content with him), who spends a year fostered with the harsh, impoverished Euny. The second is Wise Child, who lives (if I recall correctly) in Dál Riata or somewhere similar), whose tutor is Juniper herself.

I love the books because they celebrate ‘women’s work’ – growing food, cooking, dyeing cloth, spinning, weaving, healing – but don’t create a society where women are deified for their ability to perform such tasks. They move such tasks, and those who perform them, to the centre of the story, and make them heroic. But there’s a sense of proportion.

I think, looking at that list, that what I value in my fantasy novels is a celebration of ordinary life, and in particular ordinary life as lived by women and the middle class (characters traditionally absent from epic fantasy, where it’s all about the heroic aristocrats and the plucky indomitable peasants – all male). It sounds strange but what I really seek – and so rarely find – is a sense of realism in my fantasy. I want to hear about the boring diplomatic negotiations, the arguments about supply-lines, the marketplace haggling, the women dyeing wool. All the dragons and unicorns and Dark Powers Brewing in the North™ are entirely incidental. I dislike conviction – or at least conviction rewarded. I want to read about compromise.

So, what does all this have to do with the steampunk debate? Very little, at this point. I guess all I really feel like saying at this point is that there’s dross in every gentre, but people in glass genre houses shouldn’t throw stones. Sophia McDougall says it all much better, in a comment on her post:

I’d even go further and say a certain kind of ignoring harsh realities is okay — sometimes. Sort of. Depending on what you’re trying to do. Not just because there’s a place for escapism, although that’s true too, but because sometimes the fantasy allows for other sorts of truth. Look at Lord of The Rings —virtually all the criticisms are pretty much true, it DOES fetishise the past, and feudalism, and all kinds of bad or at least not-necessarily-all-that-good stuff. It is also, in some ways, *whisper it* a deeply silly book. All that ridiculous dialogue, all those songs. But it’s also a beautiful and important one. It gave me the words (when I was eleven) to understand why I was against the death penalty. It’s a lens for looking at the horrors of the 20th Century. Does anyone want it not to exist, exactly as it is, and would it really be improved if there was, say, more bubonic plague in it and exploration of the class issues between Frodo and Sam?

Precisely.

Things don’t get no better, better than you and me March 20, 2010

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, childhood, fangirl.
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Months and months ago I mentioned on Livejournal that I was intending to write a series of posts about my favourite literary couples – although I planned to expand that to include platonic couples, groups of friends, and families. Now I’ve finally got my act together and started working on this, and so I bring you the first of what will be a series of posts. This one is a rather arbitrarily-selected group of couples (in the romantic sense of the word). When selecting them, I had three criteria:
1. That they be a couple from a book or series that means or meant a lot to me
2. That they not be the sort of people usually found on such lists (no Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy)
3. That they be characters from books

The last criterion was simply to avoid massive headaches as if I’d included other types of texts, I’d be here still writing this after I’d finished my PhD!

Looking at the couples I came up with, I feel a bit disappointed at the heteronormativity of my list, and I know it’s more through my own fault than that of existing literature: There are great stories with GLTBQ couples, but I haven’t read many of them (with the possible exception of Written On The Body by Jeanette Winterson). But I certainly don’t blame the straightness of this list on the ‘lack of good GLTBQ couples in literature’; that’s an unfair argument, and the fault is entirely my own.

At this point, I should warn you that there are spoilers for:
His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
The Crossroads trilogy by Kate Elliott
Galax-Arena and Terra-Farma by Gillian Rubinstein
Romanitas and Rome Burning by Sophia McDougall
The Space Demons trilogy by Gillian Rubinstein
The Troy Game series by Sara Douglass
The Tomorrow series and Ellie Chronicles by John Marsden
The Roma Sub Rosa series by Steven Saylor
The Obernewtyn series by Isobelle Carmody
The Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan

1. ‘I touch the place where I’d find your face’: Breaking my heart into tiny, tiny pieces, every single time
Lyra and Will from His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman.

They save the multiverse together by falling in love and acting on that love. Then they realise that they can’t live in the same universe, and they have to close all the windows between all the universes, or all consciousness will leak out of the entire multiverse. I cried for three days straight when I read how their story ended, and it’s still heartbreaking to think about.
Theme song: ‘Set the Fire to the Third Bar’ by Snow Patrol.
I find the map and draw a straight line
Over rivers, farms, and state lines
The distance from ‘A’ to where you’d be
It’s only finger-lengths that I see
I touch the place where I’d find your face
My finger in creases of distant dark places

Even the video clip is Lyra and Will-esque.

2. ‘What’s that waiting about?’: An (arranged) match made in Heaven (Together, they fight crime!)
Captain Anji and Mai from the Crossroads trilogy by Kate Elliott.

The best thing about this pair is how practical they are, and how well matched. Anji is a shrewd military leader and manages to gain a great deal of prestige simply by showing up with his band of mercenaries at the right time in a threatened kingdom. But his success is almost equally due to Mai’s talents as a merchant – most particularly, her ability to negotiate and drive a hard bargain.

I’ve written before about how much I love this series because it’s a fantasy series that makes middle-class talents and middle-class occupations heroic, which is a very rare thing. I also love it because of the central couple. Anji and Mai marry for diplomatic and economic reasons, but they share a mutual respect that eventually blossoms into a practical, adaptable, generous kind of love. It’s not an all-consuming, country-destroying passion, and sometimes, you know, it’s nice to recognise that love doesn’t have to be that way.

Theme song: ‘Yours and Mine’ by Calexico’ (the song only comes in at 3.50, but it’s the only Youtube clip I could find).
Horses are chomping at the bit
The gate is nearly busted down
Moment before the calm of the storm
And everyone’s blood goes wild
Except yours and mine

3. ‘Everyone’s got a theory about the bitter one’: Kid-lit’s very own Spike and Dru
Presh/Wai-Chan and Allan ‘Allyman’ Manne from Galax-Arena and Terra-Farma by Gillian Rubinstein.

I have a huge soft spot for these two. Galax-Arena was the first book where I realised I was utterly uninterested in the heroine and wanted to read only about the villains of the piece. And what villains they are! Presh is from the streets of China, Allyman’s from the streets of Birmingham. They are among the ‘peb’ (‘people’) of the Galax-Arena, a circus arena in outer space that functions more like the Colosseum in Ancient Rome. The performers, all talented acrobats snatched from homeless, forgotten existences in the poorest cities of the world, believe they’re performing for aliens. In actual fact, their adrenaline is powering the immortality of wealthy, impossibly old people. If a performer dies, the rush of adrenaline is even greater.

Allyman eventually ends up as a recruiter for the Arena, with Presh initially as a sort of enforcer, and later, after falling pregnant, is abandoned in Terra-Farma, a place where the female children of dispossessed people are given away to wealthy men in countries with low female populations (such as China). The pair are profoundly messed up, with morality that is grey at best, and yet they are much more compelling than the mousy heroine of the story, Joella. I love them to bits.

Theme song: ‘To the Moon and Back’ by Savage Garden
Love is like a barren place and
Reaching out for human faith
Is like a journey I just don’t have a map for

5. ‘We spoke in tongues we never wanted spoken’: Across the barricades
Noviana Una and Marcus Novius Faustus Leo from the Romanitas series by Sophia McDougall.

Do I really need to explain this one? I adore stories about star-crossed lovers, particularly when they come from opposite ends of the social spectrum. Marcus is heir to the Roman Empire (but a Roman Empire which never ended, and is roughly contemporaneous with our own times). Una is a fugitive slave. But they met one another when they both possessed nothing but their lives – and even those were threatened – and they are delightfully co-dependent as a result.

I love them because they’re both such introverted, private people, and yet both of them find extroversion thrust upon them against their will: Marcus because, well, he’s of the Imperial dynasty and lives his life in the spotlight, and Una because she can read minds and thus hear the thoughts of everyone around her. They are so similar it’s uncanny, and I really hope things work out for them in the third book.

Theme song: ‘The Sea’ by Van She (the most introverted band I know).
And you said
Time would change these things
For you will always be the same
[…] Now that I’m awake
You know that we are broken
The tiny hand is past with doors
Were shut that now are open
.

6. ‘Why don’t you close your eyes and reinvent me? We can unwind all our flaws’: This is so messed up I need my head examined
Asterion/Weyland and Cordelia/Caela/Noah/Eaving from the Troy Game series by Sara Douglass.

This couple spend the first two books of this series hating (Asterion) and fearing (Noah) one another, mutually antagonistic. Noah (or Cordelia and Caela as she is then, wishes only for the love of Brutus. Asterion wishes only for Brutus’ ‘kingship bands’, which Noah has hidden. This being a Sara Douglass series, Asterion does some unspeakably awful things to Noah involving her womb (he plants an imp in it and causes the imp to be ripped out through her back), and then this is the start of a beautiful love affair of great epicness.

Theme song: How could it be anything other than ‘Mezzanine’ by Massive Attack?
We can unwind
All these other flaws
All these other flaws
Will lead to
We’ll see to
All these other flaws
Will lead to mine
We can unwind all our flaws
.

7. ‘No one’s gonna take me alive’: Love is about compromises
Ellie and Lee from the Tomorrow series and Ellie Chronicles by John Marsden.

And oh, what compromises! These two fell in love while fighting a guerrilla war (as 16-year-olds) against invaders of Australia. Living rough in the bush, leading raids on their former home town, blowing up airfields, being condemned to death, Ellie and Lee find the time to fall spectacularly in, and then out, of love, while coping with PTSD, bullet wounds and having to grow up way too fast.

Their on-again, off-again relationship spans the entire war and its aftermath, and I’ve always appreciated that Marsden had the guts to show with these two that love is not easy, it’s not the cure for everything, and it’s not necessarily empowering or a protection against depression and other kinds of psychological illness. It just is.

Theme song: ‘Knights of Cydonia’ by Muse
No one’s gonna take me alive
The time has come to make things right
You and I must fight for our rights
You and I must fight to survive

8. ‘Where small birds sang and leaves were falling’: Love is not just for the young
Gordianus and Bethesda from the Roma Sub Rosa series by Steven Saylor.

These two are in their fifties and have known one another since Gordianus was a starry-eyed, penniless young Roman traveller and Bethesda was a surly Egyptian slave. (I admit, the beginnings of their relationship are a bit…troubling, and I have heard of the argument that any relationship between a master and a slave is non-consensual, as the power imbalance makes consent impossible. BUT! Gordianus frees Bethesda and they then enjoy what appear to be thirty very happy years of marriage.)

I love Gordianus and Bethesda because in most of the books I read, adult couples are either absent or not discussed, and I find their relationship really heart-warming. After 40 years, Gordianus still thinks Bethesda is the most beautiful woman in the world, and remains both impressed and terrified by her subtlety of mind. For her part, Bethesda seems to love Gordianus, although the books are told from his point of view so it’s difficult to know what she’s really feeling.

Theme song: ‘The Broad Majestic Shannon’ by The Pogues
Take my hand, and dry your tears, babe
Take my hand, forget your fears, babe
There’s no pain, there’s no more sorrow
They’re all gone, gone in the years, babe
.

9. ‘The will to greatness clouds the mind, consumes the senses, veils the signs’: Awwwww
Domick and Kella from the Obernetyn series by Isobelle Carmody.

I adore Domick and Kella because they’re just so adorable. He’s a Coercer, she’s a Healer. He’s a bit arrogant, a bit of a loner, and a bit at odds with the non-violent ideals of the rest of the Misfits. She’s compassionate, sociable, chatty, and totally horrified by any thought of violence. All together now…AWWWWW!

Of course, the fact that I loved Domick and Kella so much made it inevitable that Carmody would kill Domick off. I’m still bitter about that.

Theme song: ‘The Farthest Star’ by VNV Nation
Redeeming graces cast aside
Enduring notions, new found promise,
That the end will never come.

We live in times when all seems lost,
But time will come when we’ll look back,
Upon ourselves and on our failings.

Embrace the void even closer still,
Erase your doubts as you surrender everything:

We possess the power,
If this should start to fall apart,
To mend divides,
To change the world,
To reach the farthest star.
If we should stay silent.
If fear should win our hearts,
Our light will have long diminished,
Before it reaches the farthest star.

{Bonus awesome – the final lines of this song seem very Elspethy: Wide awake in a world that sleeps
Enduring thoughts, enduring scenes.
The knowledge of what is yet to come.
]

ETA; Jordan pointed out that I forgot to include my Space Demons couple. Well, you can find them here!

10.’Why don’t you play the game?’ : Best ‘It could never be, but I wish it would’ couple
Mario Ferrone and Elaine Taylor from the Space Demons trilogy by Gillian Rubinstein.

These two would never work. Even Rubinstein herself admits it in the epilogue to Shinkei, the third book in the series. Elaine grows up to be a famous dancer, touring the world. Mario grows up to be a ‘live fast, die young’ computer game writer, who occasionally phones up Elaine to tell her his life will be incomplete unless she marries him. ‘So far,’ Rubinstein writes, ‘she remains unconvinced’.

I shipped these two before I knew what shipping was. It seemed inconceivable that they could go through so much (being sucked into computer games and forced to work out whatever issues they might have – hate in Space Demons, fear in Skymaze and dreams (and the breaking thereof) in Shinkei) and not fall in love. Oh, how naïve I was!

I like Elaine and Mario because it’s a partnership of equals, and because the books are all about the need to work together, be less isolated and insular and live as part of a community. And, let’s face it, if you’ve travelled through an alternate reality built out of one another’s fears and dreams, you don’t really have much to hide from one another.

This pairing would never work out, and it’s not written for us to interpret it as working out, but I can’t help liking it quite a bit.

Theme: How could it be anything other than ‘Digital Love’ by Daft Punk?
You wrap your arms around too
But suddenly I feel the shining sun
Before I knew it this dream was all gone

Ooh I don’t know what to do
About this dream and you
I wish this dream comes true

Ooh I don’t know what to do
About this dream and you
We’ll make this dream come true

11. ‘The gentle genocide in your eyes’: Token Every Woman Loves a Bad Boy couple
Nick and Mae from The Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan.

Because come on, if you’re not shipping them, you’re insane!

Theme songs: ‘Gentle’ by Strawpeople, just for that above quote, and
‘Love is a Stranger’ by Eurythmics
Love is a stranger in an open car
To tempt you in and drive you far away
[…]And love, love, love is a dangerous drug
To take you away and leave you far behind
.

Middle-class army October 28, 2009

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, fangirl, reviews.
Tags: , , , ,
7 comments

You may recall that quite some time ago, I complained about the way fantasy writers tend to be very dismissive of, and even hostile towards, the middle class. If you’re reading a book set in a pre-industrial, medieval-Europe-inspired world, you’ll often find cowardly, money-grubbing merchants who reject their ‘rightful’ rulers – and, by extension, the heroism which these rulers represent – out of sheer avarice.

As I wrote,

[W]hy do these city-dwellers have to be presented as uniformly effete, grasping, power-hungry and degenerate? Why must all epic fantasy worlds be peopled with steadfast, humble, loyal peasants just waiting for their lost kings to return and save them from the Big Brewing Evil? It’s so juvenile, and it makes me want to fling things at the wall.

I’m pleased to report that in Kate Elliott’s latest series, the Crossroads trilogy, this convention has been somewhat turned on its head.

Spirit Gate

I’ve read the first two books, Spirit Gate and Shadow Gate, and while there are many wonderful things about these books (not least that they’re set in an alternative version of what appear to be China, Mongolia, India, the Ottoman Empire and Central Asia, rather than the usual vaguely medieval European mishmash you tend to find in much fantasy), what I’d like to applaud is their positive presentation of the middle class. At this point, I should let you know that there may be spoilers.

The books are, for the most part, set in ‘The Hundred’, a Chinese-inflected country which was once governed by supernatural, supposedly immortal ‘Guardians’. The Guardians’ justice was enforced by eagle-riding reeves, who are all that remains of the governing structure of the Hundred, since the Guardians have disappeared. The Hundred is undergoing a great deal of chaos and upheaval, as various factions seek to establish control, or at least access to trade routes and wealth. Into this chaos step Anji and Mai, who are fugitives from the neighboring Sirnarkian empire. Anji is one of many rival heirs to the Sirnarkian throne – a throne which is always won by slaughtering one’s rivals. He is also half-Qin. Despite what the name might suggest, the Qin are probably closest to nomadic Mongol culture, and are currently enjoying rule over several neighboring regions. Mai is Anji’s wife, and she comes from a wealthy merchant family from one of these Qin-controlled regions. The pair of them become inadvertently caught up in the struggles within the Hundred.

What is so fantastic is that although Anji and his Qin mercenaries play a major role in saving the forces of good in the Hundred, Mai plays an equally significant part. This is amazing, as Mai has been set up as a consummate merchant: she worked on her family’s fruit stall back home, and her combination of hard bargaining and an accurate understanding of human nature meant that she contributed greatly to her family’s wealth. Throughout the series, her negotiating skills mean that she, Anji and their followers constantly enjoy favourable conditions and, ultimately, a privileged position in the Hundred. But her merchant skills achieve far more than that: they actually save the Hundred on more than one occasion.

Shadow Gate

It’s so refreshing to see the medieval equivalent of the middle class presented in this way. It shows that Elliott really did her research – it reflects a more accurate understanding of how mercantile societies operated, and how such societies might’ve reacted to conflict and war. Mai is a fabulous character, principled yet pragmatic, outwardly restrained but gifted at speaking persuasively when the need arises. It’s been a long time since I’ve met a character in a fantasy novel who appealed to me so much, and it’s been an even longer time since I’ve read a fantasy novel where all elements of the imagined society rang so true. I cannot wait to read the final book in the series.