Review: Upright Women Wanted

A recurring theme amongst the nominees for last year’s Hugo award for Best Novella was: the creation of spaces in which marginalised people could thrive, despite hostility from the wider world. So we had P. Djèlí Clark’s Ring Shout, in which Black joy and Black (specifically Gullah) cultural traditions thrive despite the gathering forces of racism; and Seanan McGuire’s Come Tumbling Down, whose characters attend a school for wayward children – children who, Pevensie-like, have lost the magical worlds whose doors were once open to them, and who commiserate each other’s losses – and whose waywardness often stands in for real-world marginalisation. And then we have Sarah Gailey’s Upright Women Wanted.

The novella, which benefits from a sort of Western feel, is set in a future United States which has succumbed entirely to totalitarianism. Women and LGBT+ people have functionally no rights, the supply of literature and other media is strictly controlled, unelected officials enforce state power violently and with little oversight; the whole shebang. Our protagonist is Esther, a young woman who flees her hometown when her lover Beatriz is executed for possessing unauthorised literature and seeks out a group of Librarians, women who travel around the States distributing authorised material. Esther hopes that travelling with these upright, morally correct women will cure her of what she believes to be sinful, destructive urges. But the truth, as she discovers, is quite the opposite: not only are the Librarians as queer as it gets (and, in fact, not all women: one of them, Cyd, is a non-binary person forced to pass as a woman to survive), they’re also a front for a resistance movement that exists to conduct people like Esther to safety in queer-friendly, “insurrectionist” states.

So this is very much a text born of the Trump era: of fears of creeping authoritarianism, of the rise of the far right and the alt-right, of the rapid erosion of the rights of people who aren’t cis straight able-bodied white men. It’s one of a slew of recent texts that extrapolate current trends in US and world politics into a dystopian future: Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigade is particularly on my mind since last week’s review of her earlier novel Infidel, but there’s also Analee Newitz’s The Future of Another Timeline, Simon Jimenez’s The Vanished Birds – hell, even Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments. Clearly, these are fictions that chime with people; these are realities that feel like they’re on the verge of coming true, even now, a year and a half into Biden’s administration. In this context, in a world that frequently literally is this hostile to LGBT+ people, in a world where all possible versions of the future are terrifying, Upright Women Wanted functions weirdly like – wish fulfilment?

Despite the best efforts of her society, Esther finds her people. She overcomes her internalised queerphobia and self-hatred, and she takes up the fight for a better world. This is a novella that says: we will endure. Even in the worst possible version of the future (short of, I guess, literal apocalypse), we queer folk will survive and thrive and find each other and fight. We cannot be kept down.

Which is, yes, delightful. More queer validation, please! But in order to make this argument the novella also softens the awfulness of its world. Beatriz’s death takes place off-page, and, yeah, Esther is upset about it, but she’s not exactly traumatised (as I expect a real person would be if their literal best friend/lover was literally executed in front of them) and she’s very quick to move on in order to provide some on-page, positive queer romance. She’s also very quick to come out to the Librarians, who she believes, remember, to be among the moral arbiters of her society, and who are moreover complete strangers to her: the risk of her coming out to them is astronomical, and she does it on like page ten.

I mention this not because it makes the text less enjoyable – as I said, this is queer wish fulfilment, and it works very well as such – but because in my view it lessens its power as a text about queer joy and resistance, and it lessens the value of such resistance. It seems weird to say that I want these characters to experience more trauma, but: I do! I want this novella to feel more urgent, more fierce, and ultimately more meaningful. It’s lovely as it is, and Esther’s self-loathing and journey towards self-acceptance struck a particular chord with me. But it could have been better.

Review: Infidel

“The smog in Mushtallah tasted of tar and ashes; it tasted like the war.”

So begins Kameron Hurley’s Infidel, sequel to God’s War, in which we met Nyx, state-sponsored assassin (or bel dame) in an Islamic-inflected future world that has been at war for longer than anyone can remember, over a cause that is all but forgotten. In this second novel, Nyx is no longer a bel dame, and is instead playing bodyguard to the spoiled child of an ambassador when her city, the aforementioned Mushtallah, is targeted in a devastating terrorist attack. She’s then summoned by her Queen to hunt down the rogue bel dames who featured in the events of God’s War, who the Queen believes were responsible for the attack.

None of which conveys the chief pleasure of this series, which is Hurley’s punchy, laconic prose, conjuring as it does the vast desert landscapes her characters inhabit – which in their turn reflect the violent bleakness of those characters’ lives. The improperly terraformed planet of Umayma is barely hospitable to life, and as such is a brilliant metaphor for a society endlessly at war: what joy is to be found there is contingent and brief.

Hurley’s work has often been praised for its diversity: her novels feature unapologetically queer women and people who defy gender stereotypes (one of the reasons for the brutality of the Bel Dame series is undoubtedly to counter notions of women as essentially nurturing, caregiving types – Nyx in particular is anything but that), and of course it’s fairly rare – and was rarer still when Infidel was published back in 2011 – to see speculative futures in fiction that aren’t essentially Western. It does have to be said, however, that both God’s War and Infidel play into enduring and harmful stereotypes that cast Islam as a warlike religion, with the pointlessness and endlessness of the war they depict. It’s not, I think, that Hurley is actively suggesting that this world is constantly at war because it is Islamic; but nor do I think it’s wholly a coincidence that she chose an Islamic milieu for her examination of the effects of unceasing war, even if the reasons for that choice were subconscious. (It’s worth noting that Hurley is a white American who is not, as far as I can discover, Muslim.)

Later on in her career, in 2019’s The Light Brigade, Hurley brings her exploration of total war home to the Americas, combining it with a discussion of the corroding effects of late capitalism. The Light Brigade is technically and thematically the better and more interesting book. But God’s War was one of the first queer SFF books I ever read, and the series’ wide desert spaces, and its protagonist’s uncompromising lack of femininity, still retain a hold on my imagination. I’m looking forward to picking up the third and last book in the trilogy, Rapture.

Review: Ring Shout

As mainstream SFF continues to reckon with its own colonial legacy, one author who’s receiving particular scrutiny is the early twentieth century horror author and notorious racist H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft’s brand of cosmic dread, which is partially characterised by a fear of monstrous embodiment (think of be-tentacled Cthulhu, or the shoggoths, essentially giant amorphous lumps of flesh the mere sight of which drives multiple characters mad), is inseparable from his bigotry: the horror we encounter in his work is all too often the horror of miscegenation, of being in proximity to an often racialised, monstrous Other.

And yet his influence on the genre is inescapable: not only have his works, which are now probably in the public domain and which Lovecraft himself always saw as fair game for transformative fan interpretation, inspired a plethora of directly imitative novels, short stories and games, his ideas and motifs are visible throughout modern fantasy, in everything from the incomprehensible, brutal physicality on display in many of China Mieville’s novels to the nameless, indifferent menace that lies beyond the Wall in George R.R. Martin’s fictional world of Westeros.

So: where, as SFF readers and writers, do we go from here? P. Djèlí Clark provides a possible answer in his 2020 novella Ring Shout. The book’s protagonist, Maryse Boudreaux, is a 1920s Black woman with a magical sword who hunts Ku Kluxes: alien horrors who look just like human Klansmen, until they don’t. These monsters, and the cosmic forces that control them, have a demonic plan: to use the power of white people’s hate to drag themselves into our world, deploying the racist film The Birth of a Nation as a tool to stoke up that hate.

Opposed to the forces of evil are Black cultural traditions: the magic generated by the titular ring shouts, which the Gullah woman Nana Jean distils into a liquid that Maryse and her comrades-in-arms use as protection against the Ku Kluxes. The ring shouts are also connected to the magic in Maryse’s sword, which houses the spirits of those who sold their fellows to white slavers in Africa, who are atoning for their actions by playing a part in destroying the Ku Kluxes.

Given the Ku Kluxes’ clear Lovecraftian antecedents, we can, I think, read this opposition as metatextual – especially given the novella’s explicit recognition of how pieces of media like The Birth of a Nation shape cultural attitudes. In this schema, then, the Ku Kluxes aren’t just inspired by Lovecraft’s works – they stand for them: the way that they use hate to boost their power is analogous to how Lovecraft’s racism provides the impetus for his cosmic horror. And on the opposite side we have a specifically Black mode of speculative fiction, one powered not by hate but by shared heritage and a shared cultural unity.

Doesn’t everyone love a bit of metatextuality? As a textual strategy, this is a small piece of genius: coopting the power of Lovecraft’s writing, including the bigotry that gives it that power, in order to reject it and its legacy utterly. The novella both benefits from Lovecraft’s legacy and repudiates it: charting a path forward, perhaps, for modern fantasy. Clark’s novel A Master of Djinn is up for a Hugo award this year; I’m looking forward to seeing what he does in it.

Review: Glamour in Glass

A few months ago, in my review of Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Relentless Moon, the second entry in her Lady Astronaut series, I characterised her work as: “competent”. It’s a characterisation that holds, I think, for her earlier novel Glamour in Glass, follow-up to her Regency fantasy romance Shades of Milk and Honey.

The novel’s set in an alternate version of the early nineteenth century in which “glamour”, the art of weaving illusions, is one of the “accomplishments” considered core to a marriageable gentlewoman’s repertoire. There are, however, also male glamourists, who, despite being seen as vaguely disreputable for specialising in an art that’s traditionally gendered female, are also the only ones permitted by society to practice it meaningfully, to get paid for doing it, to research new techniques in it, and to become authorities on its use and how it works. Its protagonist, Jane, is a gentlewoman, highly skilled at glamour, who’s married to a prominent male glamourist called Vincent. The pair are sent by the Prince Regent, for whom Vincent has completed work in the past, to Belgium, where tensions are rising as Napoleon pushes further into Europe.

The novel’s interests, then, are essentially feminist ones: the contested social status of glamour, as an activity that’s regarded as the preserve of women but also one that women are not allowed to specialise in, is intended to point up the double standards that have dogged women (and people who are perceived to be women) for most of history. Jane is at least as skilled a glamourist as her husband, but her gender prevents her from being recognised for her talent, or even being able to practice it in any sort of public way. Her plight is exacerbated by the fact that, fairly on in the novel, she becomes pregnant: performing glamour during pregnancy is dangerous for the foetus, meaning that Jane is not only socially but also physically incapable of partaking in the work she’s best at. Again, there’s clearly some commentary going on here about the ways in which women have historically been disadvantaged in their pursuit of meaningful achievement. Jane’s inability to perform glamour while pregnant mirrors the way in which pregnancy and birth have been used as excuses to hold women back in the workplace in more recent periods of history. The danger to Jane’s pregnancy is based in fact, not cultural prejudice, as an event later in the novel makes clear. But Regency cultural attitudes towards pregnancy as a thing that women are expected to undergo multiple times (Pride and Prejudice‘s Mrs Bennet has, remember, five daughters) – as something fundamental to the purpose of marriage itself – multiply that biological disadvantage, restricting women’s options even further.

Which is good analysis, as far as it goes; the problem is that it doesn’t go particularly far. It is, to be honest, fairly obvious that women’s choices were severely limited in the Regency period; I mean, Austen herself was pointing this out at the time. And Kowal isn’t really interested in delving any deeper into the gender politics of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, or into what women of the time thought about them: Jane is (apart from some notable exceptions, such as when she is shocked by a French woman’s very mild indiscretion) a thoroughly modern heroine, particularly in her attitudes towards the confinements of pregnancy and childbirth. Too, Kowal restricts her social critique to the plight of middle-class white women: while the servant class is marginally more visible than it is in Austen’s novels, there’s little exploration of how the patriarchy affects them; and there are no characters at all who are not white. What I’m trying to say is that these are all very safe choices Kowal is making; vaguely progressive without being very interesting.

This middle-of-the-road approach to storytelling makes itself known in the way Kowal structures her narrative, too. Much of the plot’s tensions arise from that age-old romcom trope of romantic leads failing, for one reason or another, to communicate effectively: this can be done well, of course, but here it’s just mildly enraging. And many of the plot’s twists are telegraphed quite obviously in advance, making for a read that’s a little…predictable, to say the least. Again, foreshadowing is something that’s very effective in the right hands, and Kowal’s aren’t exactly the wrong hands; it’s just that her construction lines, as it were, are very visible on the page. The choices that she’s making are exactly the ones that you’d expect a competent author who’s familiar with the tropes and structures that work well in her chosen genre to make.

These issues – the vaguely liberal but ultimately uninspired politics, the transparent plot-construction – are all things that get better in Kowal’s later work but that never entirely go away. For all that she’s currently a critical darling in SFF circles, a frequent presence on Hugo nomination lists at least, her work is very far from the best of what the genre has to offer. Readable, sure; entertaining, usually. But still: never better than competent.

Review: The Winter Long

You don’t have to read very much of Seanan McGuire’s urban fantasy series about the changeling PI Toby Daye to realise that it’s centrally concerned with blood. Both literally and figuratively: Toby’s investigations are helped by her ability to decipher people’s thoughts and experiences by “riding” – tasting – their blood; and, on a more metaphorical level, the bonds of family and inheritance are extremely important to the action of the series.

The Winter Long, the eighth Toby Daye novel, is no exception. The book sees the return of Simon Torquill, the man who at the beginning of the series turned our heroine into a fish for fourteen years, dooming her to the loss of her mortal family. Understandably, Toby is less than thrilled when he knocks on her door, but his reappearance leads her to some revelations about her powerful mother, Amandine, and about her own place in Faerie’s highly stratified social structure, continuing the process of growing into her social role that the series as a whole charts.

What makes these novels stand out as urban fantasy is the way they exploit the existing potential of myth and legend – specifically Celtic myth and legend – to examine themes of family and belonging, rather than simply using them for aesthetic flavour (as, say, Katherine Addison’s The Angel of the Crows does with steampunk). Inheritance and dynasty are key concerns of Celtic myth: I’m thinking particularly of The Mabinogion, with its four branches woven around the family of Pryderi, the king of Dyfed, its emphasis on lost children, unhappy marriages, heirships and sibling loyalty. The fae in such stories, with their strange bargains and arcane conditions (think of Pwyll trading places with Arawn, lord of Annwn, for a year and a day), often stand in for the fear of the other, the outsider; the people whose traditions and customs you do not know, who you might end up mortally offending accidentally. So questions of belonging naturally attach themselves to stories about the fae too. As a result, McGuire’s series feels fundamentally steeped in fae lore and folktale in a way that many urban fantasy novels don’t manage, lending it surprising resonance and depth. There’s real darkness and peril here.

It does have to be said that, considered as an individual installment, The Winter Long is not particularly memorable: even after having read an exhaustive account of the novel’s plot at the October Daye Wiki to prompt my memory, I still don’t have a good sense of the shape of the book as a whole: its narrative arc, the fairytale motifs it’s working with, its overall aesthetic goals. That’s less of a problem with a novel like this, which sits slap-bang in the heart of a long, ongoing series: the Toby Daye books aren’t really meant to be read as standalones, despite the work McGuire does to orient new readers in each volume. But, ultimately, this is a novel that feels more like it’s doing set-up for later installments (despite being structurally complete: this isn’t a classic case of Middle Book Syndrome) than a text with an identity of its own.

Review: The Angel of the Crows

Is steampunk dead? It’s a question that’s been rattling around in genre circles for a good ten years, ever since the aesthetic began to make its way out of the subculture and into the mainstream, popping up on haute couture catwalks, in blockbuster films and in music videos by major artists. (Typing “steampunk” into Etsy returns more than 250,000 results.) The problem is clearly not one of waning interest, but rather the opposite: smeared across the world’s media, permeating the world’s markets, have the signs and signifiers of steampunk – cogs, gears, steam engines, bustles, corsets and pocket watches – been emptied of their meaning, aestheticised in the purest sense? Has steampunk lost its (probably already very dubious) punk credentials?

For me, the answer is: indubitably yes. In some cases. Including that of Katherine Addison’s Sherlock-wingfic-turned-respectable-SFF-novel The Angel of the Crows, which transplants Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories into a fantastical version of Victorian London in which werewolves, vampires and ghosts stalk the streets alongside Jack the Ripper. Addison’s Sherlock figure – here named Crow – is an angel, in a world where such beings must remain within specific buildings to retain their identities and individualities; Crow has got around this rule by salvaging a piece of banister from his original residence, and as a result has a somewhat seedy reputation among other angels (it surely doesn’t help that he has taken the rather grandiose title “the Angel of London”). Watson – dubbed J.H. Doyle here for what I suspect are copyright reasons – remains a retired army doctor, except that the wounds the war has left them with are metaphysical rather than material: an encounter with a fallen angel has turned them into an (unregistered, illegal). hellhound. Predictably enough, Crow and Doyle move in together, largely because they are the only people who can tolerate each other, and Doyle becomes drawn into Crow’s hobby-slash-occupation of solving intricate and unusual crimes.

The plots here are all pretty familiar, notwithstanding the supernatural elements: Addison takes us on a Greatest Hits tour of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, from A Study in Scarlet to “The Speckled Band”, leaving motivations, clues and occasionally entire narratives intact. This is an episodic novel, with a vague overarching structure binding it all together: those looking for tight, efficient plotting should probably go elsewhere. The major innovation that Addison has made here is in introducing queer representation (as opposed to the blatant queerbaiting that went on in her source text, the BBC TV series Sherlock): Doyle, as I’ve already intimated, is some flavour of genderqueer, and Crow is vaguely transmasculine. It’s difficult to be definitive about their identities, because Addison herself isn’t: the novel is narrated in the first person by Doyle, no pronoun is ever used to refer to them, they live as a man but explicitly refer to themself as “not a man”; similarly, the masc-presenting Crow tells Doyle that angels are “all female…Insofar as it makes sense to apply gender to asexual beings”, but that “human beings give [angels]…gender”. Electra Pritchett suggests here, pretty compellingly, that Addison is confusing concepts of gender, sex and sexuality, which is one reason why it’s so difficult to make out how to read Crow and Doyle.

Does this queering of these two canonical characters, then, put the punk into Addison’s steampunk setting? Well…not for me: partly because of Addison’s somewhat clumsy handling of their queerness (probably we could argue that the confusion around their transness has to do with the limited vocabulary a Victorian person would have had available to express these concepts, but frankly…this is a novel with hellhounds and angels in it, it’s not THAT committed to historical accuracy), and partly because she doesn’t do a whole lot with it. There is, for example, no real examination of traditional gender roles in Victorian society. And pretty much everything else about this novel is fairly, hmm, unremarkable given the setting and its genre. Crow and Doyle are comfortably middle-class, if occasionally strapped for cash. They do run across the spectre of Victorian colonial imperialism at least once, but not in a way that significantly disturbs the structure or mood of the text. Addison attempts nothing particularly notable with her prose or her plots; generally, the novel isn’t creating any form of productive tension for the reader to rub up against.

The result is, to be fair, a thoroughly enjoyable one: I am not immune to the aesthetic pleasures of steampunk, that warm immersion in a romanticised past, in the comfortingly familiar promises of fog-shrouded London streets where all manner of creatures may lurk. I would happily read a sequel, or two, or five; and seeing queerness represented in this sort of story is always a small joy, even if it is awkwardly done. But throughout my reading of The Angel of the Crows, and beyond, I found myself wondering what the purpose of it all was; what Addison was trying to say. This is steampunk without its bite, steampunk as consolatory, familiar, a sanitised bourgeois fantasy of what was in reality a profoundly oppressive age. This is steampunk-as-zombie: not dead, but not truly alive either.

Review: Finna

Nino Cipri’s debut novella Finna, published just before the Covid-19 pandemic hit America in earnest in early 2020, evinces similar weaknesses to its sequel, Defekt, which I reviewed here in February. Set in the same branch of multinational retail conglomerate LitenVärld (a parodic analogue of Ikea) as Defekt, the novella follows two lower-level employees, Jules and Ava, who have only recently broken up their romantic relationship when they’re sent by their manager through one of the wormholes that periodically opens up in LitenVärld’s stores to retrieve a customer named Ursula who has unwittingly wandered into another world. They quickly discover that the elderly woman in question has been devoured by a predatory sofa, and in their search for an appropriate “alternative” – as the corporate euphemism goes – they cross multiple universes and begin to renegotiate a new kind of relationship, with each other, with the labour they perform, and with LitenVärld.

Like Defekt, then, Finna is a text ripe with anti-capitalist potential, and indeed other reviewers and critics have found in it rich ground for discussions about dreamwork and the intersection between class and capitalism. While I’m glad these discussions exist, I personally did not find the text nearly so generative. As Electra Pritchett points out in the Strange Horizons review linked above, “Finna feels a little on the short side”; I’ll go one further and contend that it is, in fact, slight.

Again as with Defekt, the novella form feels too constrictive for the story Cipri is trying to tell. With Defekt, the problem was a question of atmosphere; Cipri didn’t have the space to build the sense of the uncanny I felt was needed to give the text’s anti-capitalist critique real force and charge. Here, it’s simply that…there’s a lot going on (multiple universes! devoured grannies! murderous hives of LitenVärld employees!) and we never get the opportunity to stop, take in the scenery, ponder the implications of the metaphors and resonances Cipri’s setting up. Consider, for example, the death of Ursula at the hands (cushions?) of an animated LitenVärld product. While the text’s cursory treatment of this event to some extent reflects corporate priorities around similar “accidents” (or “fatalities” as the euphemistic buzzspeak has it) – the focus is on damage control and mitigation, hence the necessity for Ava and Jules to plunge further into the multiverse to find a different version of Ursula to replace her in this world – it also sits at odds with Cipri’s rather more considered excavation of their protagonists’ relationship. It seems somewhat inappropriate, given Finna’s avowed pro-labour, progressive stance, that we spend more time with the awkwardnesses of a post-romantic relationship than with the reality that an innocent bystander has just…died?

And what about that LitenVärld hive, which Jules and Ava stumble across in their quest for Ursula’s replacement? About halfway through the novella, the pair find themselves in familiar territory, a LitenVärld store that seems more or less ordinary, until they attempt to buy some lunch in the food court and everything goes terribly wrong: the store’s staff, it turns out, are like worker bees, controlled by an overriding hivemind which is not happy about the incursion of two strangers. In the casting of retail employees as de-individualised drones we can see a precursor to the LitenVärld clones that populate Defekt, a comment on how capitalism compromises individual subjectivity and turns it to its own ends. But, again, we are given very little time to sit in this moment and think about those resonances, before we are hurtling on again with our heroes, onto the next adventure.

Underlying all of this is a sort of snarky world-weary cynicism that’s very…queer Twitter. “Ugh, capitalism” is a running joke between Ava and Jules, and it’s the flattening lens through which they – and therefore we – read everything about their world. Of course, in our reality, capitalism really is all-consuming, it taints everything we do and say and write, but there’s also a sense in which to respond to the death of a person with “Ugh, capitalism” (as Jules and Ava effectively do) is…insufficient. Snark as fake activism; snark as apathy. Where is the rage, the grief, the despair, the horror?

At root, then, my problem with Cipri’s work is its lack of nuance, its sophomoric one-note analysis of labour conditions under capitalism. In Finna, Cipri is both too ambitious and not ambitious enough: seeking to cram a critique of our current economic system into the slim form of the novella, they restrict themself to a mode of thought characteristic to a particular online niche – a mode developed for a medium that gives little space for depth or complexity. Finna is not unreadable, but it’s not memorable, either.

Review: Black Sun

Is representation enough? It’s a question I’ve been turning over more and more lately, as mainstream SFF continues to wrestle with its patriarchal, colonial legacy, and as my own personal honeymoon period with SFF that looks beyond the straight white hegemony passes and (hopefully) matures into something more thoughtful. And it’s a question I find myself asking when it comes to thinking about Rebecca Roanhorse’s third novel (and first in a new series) Black Sun, a text which draws on the mythologies of the pre-colonial Americas to create a thriving multicultural fantasy world where queerness of multiple flavours is normalised – a world, in fact, that looks nothing like the medieval European paradigms so much of fantasy is based on. As someone who very much enjoys the work of Becky Chambers – which is pretty much all representation, like, queer representation is pretty much the Thing those books are doing – I’d have expected it to be right up my street. But, in fact, I have basically…nothing to say about it.

That’s partly because, while the worldbuilding eschews the conventions of Western fantasy, the plot structure is thoroughly familiar. Basically: the blind priest Serapio returns from exile to his parents’ country, Tova, in order to restore the Crow God to his rightful place in society, aided by Xiala, a larger-than-life bisexual sailor with mysterious marine powers. Meanwhile, the Sun Priest of Tova faces resistance from her fellow priests and the people of Tova in her attempts to reform the priesthood. This is a quest story, with a bit of tragico-political scheming thrown in; the characters are stock types who are, yes, queer where once they might not have been (although I think we can all agree that the promiscuous bisexual is as old as, like, the concept of bisexuality, and as for bisexual sailors – ), but not in a way that interestingly queers the story Roanhorse is telling. I’m not saying that queerness always has to have a plot purpose, just that – I’m struggling to find anything to grab onto in Black Sun, thematically.

The conclusion I’m reaching for, here, is that there’s not a lot going for Black Sun except for its inclusion of non-Western mythologies and characters, and the queerness of those characters. These are, to be clear, valuable things. And there are a couple of stand-out details that show how Roanhorse’s world is altered by default queerness: Xiala’s people, the Teek, are a deeply misandrist society who see Xiala’s attraction to men as shameful and sordid. That’s genuinely quite interesting. But we don’t spend any time among the Teek, and so the novel’s structure and plot are not markedly affected by their presence. Roanhorse doesn’t seem to have anything to say about how default queerness might alter how society works, or how a culture constructed around non-Western mythologies might tell stories differently.

Black Sun is not a badly written novel. It’s strongly plotted, well-paced; the prose is competent and readable. But it’s not memorable. It has nothing really original to say to match the originality of bringing these pre-colonial American mythologies into a work of commercial fantasy. Simple representation is, for me, no longer enough to make a text exciting and invigorating and challenging. Diverse characters deserve diverse storytelling, narratives that question and trouble literary conventions. For me, Black Sun doesn’t achieve that.

Review: Hild

How did the prominent seventh century abbess Saint Hilda of Whitby, advisor of kings, rise to prominence from a relatively obscure position in the court of her great-uncle Edwin, the ruler of what is now Yorkshire? That’s the question Nicola Griffith seeks (partially) to answer in her 2013 novel Hild, which follows the title character from her very early childhood in her father’s home to her eventual, inevitable political marriage. In between, she learns to use her considerable powers of observation and deduction to gain status in Edwin’s court, pushing against the boundaries and restrictions placed on women in her society to obtain a reputation as a seer and witch.

Although it’s pretty resolutely not fantastical – Hild is read as magical by her contemporaries only because she’s surrounded by men who cannot or will not contemplate the patterns at work in the world around them – it certainly seems to have been received as fantasy-adjacent by a number of audiences: as well as featuring in the Strange Horizons book club in 2015, it was nominated for the Nebula and John W. Campbell Memorial awards, and is a Tiptree Honor book. One of the reasons for this, I’d suggest, is that it plunges readers into the unfamiliar world that is seventh century England in a way that’s very similar to how some high fantasy writers plunge their readers into their secondary worlds. Griffith doesn’t spend any time holding our hands or, really, explaining the convoluted sociopolitical landscape her characters find themselves in; instead, she expects us to pick up concepts and language as we go. The reading protocols that are useful in interpreting Hild are the ones that are useful in interpreting high fantasy texts.

What’s this fantastic sensibility in service of? Hild is a slow, patient text, very interested in the texture of early medieval life, in accordance with its heroine’s penchant for quiet, intense observation. Griffith has invented or extrapolated much of this detail, owing to a lack of evidence, textual or material, about this period, which is, I suppose, another way that Hild is like a fantasy epic: the world here has been deliberately built to reflect the author’s aesthetic preoccupations, rather than accurately representing a historical reality, and yet at the same time it’s invested in concealing its constructedness. It wants you to inhabit its world fully, along with its protagonist, taking in all that vital sensory detail that allows her to predict what’s going to happen next. A good example of Griffith’s construction of her novel’s world is what she calls the gemaecce: taken from the Old English term gemaecca, meaning “one of a pair, companion, mate”, the term in Griffith’s novel denotes a close, almost familial pairing between two women. This invention allows Griffith to explore how Hild benefits from relationships with people of different genders, and to dig into the helplessness and isolation that her society inflicts upon women. Because I, like most readers, know very little about social structures in seventh century Britain, I didn’t realise this was made up until I read Griffith’s author’s note at the back of the book: I think the text relies on this knowledge gap in quite a lot of cases for its verisimilitude.

The overall effect, anyway, of this fantastic approach to historical fiction is, for me at least, a sense of estrangement: the text has none of the coziness I associate with traditional historical fiction. Rather, in treating the past like a fantasy world, it conveys the alienness of that past. We know so little about seventh century Britain that it might as well be a fantasy world. And also: seventh century Britain is so distant from us in every way – chronologically, culturally – as to be virtually unrecognisable anyway. The past, as L.P. Hartley said, is a different country. Except, not just a different country: a different world.

Which is not to say that the themes Hild is working with are wholly unfamiliar: like all texts, it is responding primarily to the occupations of the moment. I’ve talked a little already about its examination of female power and its limits; it’s also interested in sexuality, casting Hild as bisexual and her society as one that cares not so much about who people sleep with as who they are married to. This reading of early medieval sexual politics is as much a fantasy as the concept of gemaecce, as Griffith again admits at the end of the book:

“there’s no evidence for anything, sexually, in early seventh-century northern Britain. Nothing. No material culture and no text.”

The motivation for this invention is similarly obvious: Griffith is engaged, as many authors of historical fiction and historical SFF are at the moment, in rewriting the marginalised into history, challenging established hegemonic narratives that seek to erase the existence of (in this case) women and queer folk. And, again, we can see how the gap in common knowledge about the seventh century both plays into the seeming verisimilitude of Griffith’s setting and obscures its constructedness. That sense of alienation, of distance from the past, is a manufactured thing; by which I mean it’s manufactured to bring prominence to concerns that seventh century people may not have thought about at all. (I mean: if there is no textual or material evidence about sexuality in this period, perhaps that’s an indication that it just wasn’t a point of contention or interest?)

So: does Hild provide a convincing origin story for Hilda of Whitby? I’m not sure. Certainly it is a compelling portrait of an extraordinary woman seizing what power she can in a rigidly patriarchal society against a rapidly shifting sociocultural background riven by internecine political conflicts. It’s a novel that, to me, rewards and demands patient attention, rather than something to race through and admire the shape of. But its sensibilities – its prizing of rational deduction, its interest in matters of sex – are a little too modern to ring quite true. It’ll be interesting to see what the long-awaited sequel, Menewood, brings.

Film Review: Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga

In 2018, two years into the presidency of Donald Trump, a time of deepening division and despair among liberal Westerners, American speculative fiction author Catherynne M. Valente released a novel called Space Opera in which a washed-up glam rock superstar named Decibel Jones competes in an intergalactic version of Eurovision in order to save humanity from annihilation. The novel was arguably Valente’s biggest success to date, earning her a Hugo nomination, a film deal and much wider recognition in the fandom than she’d previously achieved.

2018 was also the year when American comedian and actor Will Ferrell began work on Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, a straight-to-Netflix feature film starring Ferrell and Rachel McAdams as an Icelandic musical duo who, through a combination of unlikely circumstance and outright political shenanigans, find themselves representing their country at, well, Eurovision. This, too, was something of a surprise success when it finally came out in 2020, in the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic: thanks largely to a campaign by author Seanan McGuire, it was actually nominated for a Hugo award for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form, on the strength of a couple of minor speculative elements and, one suspects, its thematic links with Space Opera.

Despite some pretty hokey romance-movie assumptions – like the default heterosexuality that sees someone like Will Ferrell’s Lars ending up with the apparently much younger Sigrit (his bandmate, played by McAdams), without any real explanation as to why they like each other In That Way – the film is actually genuinely quite delightful. Ferrell and McAdams convey a kind of bumbling homespun charm that makes it more or less impossible not to root for their characters: Sigrit’s half-sincere belief in elves is a nice touch, as is the possible-but-never-confirmed existence of those elves – it’s a little oddball/magical-realist in a way I’ve not seen before in a commercial film, lending a sort of gentle earnestness to The Story of Fire Saga that grounds its camper, glitzier moments, like the vertiginous scene where a posse of former Eurovision contestants join Lars and Sigrit in performing a mash-up of pop hits at a decadent private party.

The film’s ending is also nicely done: like Valente’s novel, it avoids the cliched narrative trap of suggesting that passion alone is enough to win Eurovision, instead opting for a quieter resolution that emphasises the communal value of music, its power to bring people together in joy. It’s a choice that gets to the heart of why I think these stories are popular: in times when so much is uncertain, it’s a pleasure to plunge into these glamorous, over-the-top, larger-than-life worlds; to glory in the unashamedly, unironically heartfelt joy of just singing together, celebrating and listening to music together. The Story of Fire Saga is ridiculous, of course. But that’s why it’s good.