jump to navigation

Authorities and adaptations May 17, 2018

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, reviews.
Tags: , , , , , , ,
add a comment

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

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

cover-tea-master.jpg

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

Cover - Surface Breaks

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

Cover - Queens of Innis Lear

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

Advertisements

All is full of linkpost April 10, 2015

Posted by dolorosa12 in linkpost.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
add a comment

I was going to devote this week’s post to the Hugo Awards situation, but to be honest, I thought better of it. Why waste my energy on the emotionally draining behaviour of a bunch of immature, selfish, cruel, destructive people? I’d rather talk about people who build, create, nurture and share.

At Safe, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz talks about words, actions, and using power for good. It’s a post filled with hope and compassion. (Content note for discussion of abusive behaviour.)

Rochita’s post refers to this one by Laura Mixon, which comes with a similar content note.

I absolutely adore M Sereno’s poetry. Her latest, ‘The Eaters, published in Uncanny Magazine, is gorgeous. Amal El-Mohtar reads it aloud here.

BBC Radio 4 is doing a programme featuring extensive interviews with Ursula Le Guin, Ursula Le Guin at 85.

Short stories I read and enjoyed this week include ‘Monkey King, Faerie Queen’ by Zen Cho (published at Kaleidotrope) and ‘Ambergris, or the Sea-Sacrifice’ by Rhonda Eikamp (published at Lackington’s, illustrated by Likhain).

Over at SF Signal, authors pay tribute to Terry Pratchett and Leonard Nimoy.

Ken Liu discusses his new novel The Grace of Kings at SF Signal.

This round-up post at Ladybusiness has some fabulous short story recommendations.

It’s always disorienting for me to see real-life friends and former academic colleagues getting discussed in SF publications.

This is the most Cambridge story ever.

Please spend your weekends being lovely to each other.