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A wave of justice June 14, 2020

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

Cover - Empire of Gold

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

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

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

Seas of freedom May 12, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Darkness, banished December 22, 2019

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, novellas, reviews.
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Today — the morning after the northern hemisphere’s longest night of the year — seems like the perfect moment to talk about a delightful novella I read recently. Sing for the Coming of the Longest Night, cowritten by Katherine Fabian and Iona Datt Sharma is the story of families found and chosen, a celebration of queer love, life and community, and takes place during the cold, strange, interstitial time that is the leadup to the winter solstice. The novel is told from two points of view — Layla and Nat, who have never got along, but are forced into an uneasy alliance when their shared boyfriend, magical, flaky, fey Meraud, goes missing. They must work together to find and save him before the solstice, after which point he will be lost to both of them forever.

Cover - Sing for the Coming of the Lowest Night

There are so many things I enjoyed about the book. I loved the compassion and joy with which it celebrated its characters’ queerness — multiple nonbinary characters, characters of all sexual orientations (with the only straight characters kept mainly in the background), some characters living in same-sex married middle class respectibility, others in overlapping polyamorous groups, but all happy and supported by those around them. I also loved the somewhat rueful rendition of the weirdness that is the UK in the leadup to Christmas, and how bizarre, frankly, a lot of the ‘traditions’ of this time period (dreadful school nativity plays, tacky shop decorations, ghastly Christmas singles released on the radio) can appear. (The acknowledgement, also, that these ‘traditions’ are forced on everyone, whether they’re religiously or culturally Christian or not — given that Layla is Hindu and Nat is Jewish — was also very welcome.) I also adore stories where characters with really different perspectives are forced to make common cause and work together, so I really enjoyed seeing this with Layla and Nat, especially their slow moves towards trust, understanding and empathy for each other’s experiences and outlooks over the course of the book.

But my favourite thing of all about Sing for the Coming of the Longest Night was the way it portrayed the blurring of the supernatural into everyday life, imbuing London, home, and family with a sense of weirdness, wildness and magic. The story has a folkloric quality, reminding me of another winter solstice British classic which is very dear to my heart, Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising, in the way in which wild, frightening British mythology intrudes into comfortable Christmassy familiarity. As in The Dark Is Rising, the characters are saved by the thing that all winter festivals, at their heart, are celebrating: warmth, light, and human kindness and connection. The result is a book that is both hopeful and cozy, which acknowledges that family (whether of blood, choice, or some combination the two), love, and relationships are messy and complicated, but also that they are the only thing that will save us. The novella was a shining candle of hope, illuminating the darkness with kindness and clarity.

The voyage home September 8, 2019

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

Cover - The Bird King

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

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

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

No more dreaming like a girl, for a body in the garden July 21, 2019

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It would have been easy to devour This is How You Lose the Time War, Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone’s collaborative epistolary time travel romance novella, but something about its format, and its authors’ obvious enjoyment of the tactile, private pleasure of a correspondence through physical letters, encouraged a slower speed to savour their story. This exquisite work — told in letters between two rival, time-travelling agents as they manipulate the streams of history to the perceived advantage of their respective sides — is a marvel and a delight. The story is at once playful and tragic, with both authors revelling in wordplay and allusions, and the extremes of emotion engendered by their characters’ poignant situation.

Cover - This is How You Lose the Time War

Time travel stories are difficult to pull off well: there’s an inherent inequality between traveller and those who wait, and to whom the traveller returns. A time traveller venturing into the past can often come across as unbearably superior, revelling in their private knowledge of present-day science, technology, and social norms while withholding this knowledge for personal gain. A time traveller from the past to our present can play into unfortunate stereotypes and tropes. This is How You Lose the Time War sidesteps all these issues firstly by making both Red and Blue, its letter-writing antagonist-lovers, time travellers, rather than one journeying and returning while the other waits, and secondly by conveying the achievements and experiences of the past with a sense of genuine respect and wonder. It helps, too, that El-Mohtar and Gladstone’s wide-ranging journeys across space and time present us with our own world’s history — but slightly slantwise, with subtle tweaks and changes, and sharp divergences from the expected path, offering endless possible outcomes.

As someone who has long been a fan of both authors’ individual works, I was greatly anticipating this joint effort, although curious about how their two very distinctive voices would work together. Here the format really is a strength — to me (familiar with both Gladstone’s and El-Mohtar’s writing) it was clear which author was responsible for which component, but it felt very much like a free-flowing, coherent conversation, or a song in which two voices joined harmoniously. The novella length gives the story exactly enough space in which to unfold in all its vivid tragedy, its two characters spilling out their love, and pain, and fierce, sensual engagement with the world, in letters, scattered across space and time for each other to find. As spies, their lives, work, and even bodies are not quite their own — belonging instead to their respective causes — and so the intensity of their letters stands in contrast, a space in which their thoughts, words, feelings and dreams belong to them alone.

The authors have spoken in interviews and other promotion of the book of their own friendship, sustained and enriched over the years by a long, correspondence in physical letters. They talked of their appreciation both for the tactility of pen, paper, and other stationery, and for the privacy and slowness of such an exchange. In an environment where the community of SFF authors is increasingly global, the medium that enables this global community and exchange of ideas can be a bit of a double-edged sword: the price for easy communication with other authors and readers on the other side of the world seems to be that all ideas and conversations must be uttered at high speed, in public. The authors’ decision to correspond by letter, therefore, has the effect of carving out a space where some of their ideas, their thoughts, and their friendship can be expressed, but not offered up for public consumption. The novella that has emerged as a result of this friendship — and its analogue conversations and exchange of ideas — is a love letter, told in love letters, to the notion of the letter itself.

A thinking woman sleeps with monsters April 21, 2019

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

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

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

In many lands April 20, 2019

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

Cover - The True Queen

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

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

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

Out of the abyss March 3, 2019

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

Cover - The Priory of the Orange Tree

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

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

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

Living legends January 29, 2019

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In some ways, 2019 had a most auspicious beginning for me, at least as far as reading was concerned: three of my most anticipated books of the year were published in consecutive weeks of January. This meant that each week began with a new literary delight appearing in my ereader for me to savour. By a strange coincidence, each book represented a different stage in a trilogy — one the explosive beginning, another the middle book, doing far more than just bridging the gap between introduction and conclusion, and the third the extremely satisfying conclusion to an extraordinary series. And each book, in its own way, built on a foundation of religion, myth, and fairy tales to construct something exquisite, powerful and page-turning.

First off the mark was Katherine Arden, with The Winter of the Witch, the final book in her medieval Russian fantasy Winternight trilogy. In this series, Arden weaves folklore and fourteenth-century Russian history with a sweeping, all-encompassing battle of good against evil. Her heroine, Vasilisa (Vasya) Petrovna, the eponymous witch, can perceive the ancient supernatural powers of the land — these range from pagan gods of death and winter to smaller deities of hearth and home and gateyard — and has found herself as entangled in their supernatural battles as she is in the more earthly political struggles facing the rulers of her land. Both temporal and supernatural Russia stands at a crossroads: there are tensions between the old religion and the new, the threat of invasion from the Mongols is ever-present, and indeed the region we now know as ‘Russia’ is only beginning to conceive of itself in this way, giving birth to itself amid war, fire and violence. Meanwhile, various supernatural beings are taking advantage of the chaos to fight battles of their own, while — as Arden has elected to go for an underlying mythology in which gods require belief in order to exist — struggling to survive in a world which increasingly denies their existence.

cover - winter of the witch

Arden is a master at balancing these grander, broader struggles with the more personal concerns of her heroine. As the story progresses, Vasya uncovers more buried secrets about her uncanny family history, grows in self-knowledge and confidence in her own powers, and embraces the role her magical mentor and protector Morozko envisaged for her: as a bridge between the earthly and supernatural, the old religion and the new, and the otherworldly power struggles of immortals and the violent birth of the Russian state. In previous books in the series, Vasya would have fled from such a destiny, protesting that her preference was for a quiet life roaming the forests with her beloved horse Solovey, but in The Winter of the Witch she has accepted the inevitable — and realises that she relishes the role of bridge-builder and protector. Part of this lies in accepting her connection with Morozko, and all that this implies, and the way that this renders her partly monstrous, and the old death god partly human is beautifully done and one of my favourite elements of the series. The result is a land protected on both supernatural and earthly fronts, leaving Vasya free to roam the stark, wintry landscapes, the line between otherworldly and mundane forever blurred.

We move from the ice and frost of medieval Russia to the deserts of the Arabian peninsula and the beautiful cities of Central Asia in The Kingdom of Copper, the second book in S.A. Chakraborty’s Daevabad Trilogy. To be more precise, these landscapes are the otherworldly equivalent of their real-world counterparts, inhabited by djinn and invisible to the human eye. The simmering political tensions of Chakraborty’s imagined world were on the brink of bubbling over, with various djinn factions jostling for supremacy and — being long-lived, if not immortal — unable to let go of long remembered grievances. In the previous book, we had left the trio of point-of-view characters in rather desperate circumstances: Dara, the murderous nightmare or courageous freedom fighter (depending on one’s political perspective) and Ali, the frustrated young prince locked in a fight to the death, and Nahri, the lost daughter of a legendary healer making bargains and compromises (including a political marriage) in order to survive the cut-throat power struggles surrounding her. After setting her pieces in place, Chakraborty jumps the narrative forward by five years, to see how the various split-second decisions made by these three characters are working out for them. For the most part, things are going disastrously: Ali has been politically and geographically isolated, Nahri, hampered by a chronic inability to trust and a genuine fear for her life, is unable to effect real change, and Dara is swept up in a rebellion which values him for his ability to deal terror and violence.

cover - kingdom of copper

Chakraborty draws deftly on Islamic legend and lore about djinn and other supernatural beings, as well as extensive historical research into Abbasid-era Baghdad, and the result is a tense political thriller in which the fantastical elements blend seamlessly. She is particularly skilled in showing how her characters’ personal weaknesses and blind spots hamper their ability to solve the larger political problems of their kingdom — Dara’s prejudices, Nahri’s wariness and suspicion of others’ skills and motives, and Ali’s dogmatism and inflexibility — and how, were they to pool their resources and compromise, the results were extraordinary. Ali and Nahri’s personalities are particularly conflicting, and for this reason every scene they had together was explosive and a joy to read, especially as the book hurtled towards its denouement. I cannot wait to read the concluding book in this trilogy to find out what happens next.

One of the subtler themes of the Daevabad books is the idea of appropriation — Chakraborty’s djinn profess to detest humans, and view them with contempt, but they relish human innovations from architecture and engineering to food and fashion. Where Chakraborty keeps this theme understated and metaphorical, Roshani Chokshi brings it front and centre in The Gilded Wolves, the first in a fantasy trilogy set in Belle Époque Paris. Hers is a world in which magic is concentrated in the hands of a few spectacularly wealthy families, who supplement their power with magical objects that they ‘acquire’ and make use of. Chokshi’s magical acquisitions are, like their real-world museum counterparts, more often than not looted, uprooted by colonial powers with no thought as to their cultural significance or the moral right of colonised people to retain ownership of their own treasures. In keeping with this story that asks readers to look beyond the comforting pieties former colonist countries tell themselves, Chokshi’s main cast of characters are almost all people marginalised by empire in some way. Two are the mixed-race sons of powerful French men, and women from countries colonised by France, grudgingly accepted into the halls of power if they constantly deny and devalue half of their heritage. One is a migrant from India who has to perform a palatable version of her culture for public consumption, and who defensively embraces this sense of performance of the ‘exotic East’ as a way to maintain a semblance of control. Another — a Polish-Jewish scientist — reads to me as a hint at the antisemitic Dreyfus affair and the associated ugliness lurking at the heart of supposedly progressive and rational countries. My favourite character is a Filipino-Spanish archivist who hangs around on the fringes of revolutionary Filipino groups, yearning for acceptance and longing to commit himself to their cause.

cover - the gilded wolves

What brings this marvellous cast of characters together is a spectacular heist, and, like the best of all heist stories, The Gilded Wolves is filled with puzzles, races against time, and the squabbles and struggles of a fractious group of people whose skills they bring to the job do not compensate for their clashing personalities and disparate personal aims and motives. I love a good heist novel, particularly if — as is the case here — the characters responsible for pulling it off are marginalised, somewhat traumatised outsiders who find a family in each other. Their resourcefulness, talents, and, ultimately, ‘us against the world’ mentality stand in sharp rebuke to the society that views them as lesser, other and outsiders. Their presence amid the champagne flutes, Art Nouveau architecture, and bank vaults stuffed with looted treasures is a reminder on whose backs empires were built, the ugliness sitting like poison at the heart of even the most beautiful places. Chokshi has created a powerful and resonant work, and I can only hope that the remainder of the trilogy continues as it has started.

In full bloom January 12, 2019

Posted by dolorosa12 in blogging, books, reviews.
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I am not, in general, a person who buys books on the strength of their covers, so Felicia Davin’s Gardener’s Hand trilogy was a bit of a departure for me. But the series’ eye-catching covers, spotted at some point when I was scrolling through my Goodreads feed, and the fact that the trilogy appeared to feature a central relationship between two women was enough to spark my interest, and I’m very grateful for the serendipitous moment that brought these excellent books to my attention. At its heart, this is a series about survival — surviving harsh landscapes, oppression and injustice, cruel family history, and threats both supernatural and mundane. It’s also a series about found family, with a pleasingly ‘us against the world’ dynamic that I always find really appealling.

cover - thornfruit

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

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

cover - nightvine

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

cover - shadebloom

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

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