Review: A Song for a New Day

Sarah Pinsker’s Nebula-award-winning debut novel A Song for a New Day is a perfectly fine book. It’s a fresh, sprightly take on the trope of the triumph of art against authoritarianism, with a dose of anti-capitalist sentiment thrown in. Its ending explicitly resists the easiest answers, while holding out hope of gradual change for Pinsker’s constructed world. And yet – for reasons that aren’t entirely Pinsker’s fault, my primary emotion on thinking back on the novel is tiredness.

Published in 2019, A Song for a New Day imagines a near-future American state that, in response to a deadly pandemic and numerous terrorist attacks, has imposed draconian anti-assembly laws on its citizens. As a result, our protagonist Rosemary has hardly ever left her family’s house, let alone the small town where they live. She spends her days working for the novel’s equivalent of Amazon, troubleshooting drone deliveries from home, until a chance encounter sees her landing a job as a talent scout for a prestigious entertainment company – a job that requires her to infiltrate illegal music scenes to find promising acts. Entwined with the story of her efforts to overcome her fear of crowded spaces, and her gradual realisation that the corporation she works for is in the business of destroying the scenes from which it draws its talent in a bid to reduce competition, is the tale of Luce Cannon, a successful former musician struggling to adjust to a world in which most live music is now banned.

So: this is a pandemic novel written well before Covid-19 came over the horizon. I read it, however, last December, when Omicron was surging in the UK and people were busy cancelling Christmas parties, and my experience of the text is inextricable from those circumstances – and from the circumstances we find ourselves in now, in which weighing up risks has become nigh-on impossible thanks to a precipitous decline in masking and social distancing and a complete lack of reliable data. A Song for a New Day argues, essentially, for the importance of live music, of human connection unmediated by technology, of triumphing over fear and what it portrays as paranoid authoritarian restriction:

“We all felt our world slipping away, in cascades and cataracts, the promises of temporary change becoming less and less temporary. Didn’t we feel so much safer? Weren’t safe and healthy worth more to us than large weddings and overcrowded schools? Hadn’t the pox been spread by people working and attending school when they should have stayed home?”

This slide into ever-greater restriction is positioned explicitly as stagnation, as a surrender to corporate and political control. And, of course, this stance is pretty much entirely unproblematic considered in the context of the novel’s original publication: the tropes Pinsker is drawing on are those of the YA dystopia, in which the triumph of art, of individuality, of communal human action over the restrictive forces of the state and/or predatory capitalism is to be celebrated and valued. But, two years into a real-life pandemic, this rhetoric looks uncomfortably anti-vaccine and Covid-denialist. That is, of course, precisely because such groups have co-opted the language and symbols of dystopian literature to defend their right to be selfish. But, even armed with that knowledge, it’s difficult to engage and empathise fully with Pinsker’s heroines when they’re aligned with that rhetoric.

Over and above that, though…for all that Pinsker’s take on opposing the state is a little more nuanced than what you might find in your typical YA dystopia – it’s more realistic about the scale of what two people can achieve against the machinery of capitalism and government, for one thing – its plot structure is still, in essence, a familiar one. Its protagonist starts as a willing arm of the state, becomes gradually more disaffected, and eventually instigates an act of rebellion that represents the triumph of the human spirit over conformism: we’ve all seen this formula countless times before.

Ultimately, my weariness with A Song for a New Day stems from the fact that Pinsker doesn’t really have anything new to say – coupled with my own impatience for the overriding cultural narrative that prioritises business as usual over the safety of vulnerable people. Again, it’s absolutely not Pinsker’s fault that current events have overtaken her novel, that its meanings have changed so drastically in the face of recent history; but perhaps a more ambitious text might have stood up to that history better.

Review: Shriek: An Afterword

The caprices of the written word – of its infinite potential for misreading, misinterpretation, misrepresentation – have long been a concern of the Gothic mode: think of Frankenstein‘s layered unreliable narrators; of Wuthering Heights’ overheated epistolary format; of the uncertain ontological status of the film The Navidson Record in Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. Texts of all kinds, these novels tell us, are slippery, unstable things, contingent on the perceptions of both their readers and their writers; they both discuss this instability and perform it in the gaps between their constituent parts, in the way that they all, in various ways, use the hyperbolic aesthetics of the mode to reveal and conceal the great indescribable void that lies at the heart of language itself.

Jeff Vandermeer’s Shriek: An Afterword participates similarly in this process. Set in the fictional city of Ambergris, the subject of several of Vandermeer’s works, it is, as the title suggests, a purported afterword to “The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris”, one of the stories in the collection City of Saints and Madmen (which I have not read, but now fully intend to). The fact that, being novel-length, it is substantially longer than the text it is supposedly appended to is one of its many deliberate, and delicious, ironies. It’s the tale of the “Early History”’s author, Duncan Shriek, edited substantially by his sister Janice, and then edited again by Duncan; together, by lurching turns, they tell the story of Duncan’s disgrace at the hands of his ex-lover, the rival historian Mary Sabon, and of Janice’s own rise and fall in the city’s art scene.

Underpinning these domestic dramas, like a constant uneasy pulse in the background, is the awareness of the unknowable realm that lies beneath the city – the realm of the gray caps, inscrutable fungoid creatures who were massacred in their thousands when Ambergris was founded, and who are widely considered to be behind a disastrous and inexplicable historical event called the Silence, when a large part of Ambergris’ citizenry disappeared without a trace. What are the gray caps thinking, what are they planning (they certainly seem to be planning something), what do they want and why? No-one knows. It is perhaps not possible to know.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the novel reminded me strongly of China Mieville’s sublime, messy Bas-Lag series, which is similarly interested in how what we fondly know as civilisation, the social order of the city, coexists with the unknowable and the inhuman. The gray caps and their fungal world are what Mieville would call abcanny: illegible, unspeakable, so utterly outside any human frame of reference as to be incapable of being contained in normal symbolic schema, and yet, perhaps precisely because of that, unignorable.

Set alongside the mystery of the gray caps, which Duncan is unsuccessfully trying to investigate, is the comparatively mundane fact of the novel’s metatextual games: its footnotes, its editorial interpolations, its interest in different methods of historiography and different ways of relating to the past. As we have seen, this kind of textual play troubles our understanding of language, of the written word, as straightforwardly representative; if each of us interprets language, and textual constructs like history, differently, what kind of claim can any of us ever make to objective truth?

Taken together, then, the gray caps and the novel’s textual instability both point up the inadequacy of our models of seeing the world; in Lacanian terms, they represent the Real intruding inescapably into the Symbolic. Duncan and Janice’s interpersonal problems seem almost irrelevant against the threat, the mystery, of the gray caps; their bickering over who gets the last word feels insignificant given their society’s inability to interpret events like the (aptly-named) Silence. And yet. Life goes on. The city remains.

As metaphors for the human condition go, it’s a troubling and perceptive one. The great strength of the novel is that it never does explain what the gray caps’ deal is; that despite all attempts to interact with them they remain simply…there, causing the city to stew in its own genocidal guilt, which it is neither willing to ignore nor to engage with productively. Vandermeer, like the best Gothic novelists, ekes tremendous resonance and power from the work of simultaneously concealing and revealing the unspeakability that lies at the heart of our most fundamental social structures, the senseless, brutal violence underlying much of Western civilisation. Ambergris, embattled and sinful city of saints and madmen, is a place I’ll definitely be returning to.

Review: The Galaxy, and the Ground Within

The last novel in Becky Chambers’ series of loosely-connected novels set in her Wayfarers universe, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within is also, unfortunately, the least accomplished. Structurally, it is what’s known in TV as a bottle episode: six aliens, one of them a minor character from the first Wayfarer novel, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, find themselves trapped by an infrastructure accident at a rest stop on the planet of Gora, a major transport hub. The delay causes tensions within the group for various reasons, but it also gives them a chance to connect and to form unlikely friendships; when the emergency is over, each leaves Gora enriched by their experience.

There’s nothing, I think, intrinsically wrong with the format of the bottle episode: in the context of a TV show it can be a truly excellent thing, giving writers a chance to delve deeply into the psychology of a group and the motivations of each of its characters, as well as slowly ratcheting up tension (the Doctor Who episode Midnight is a masterful example). But it’s a pretty thin plot to hang an entire novel on, and it does require some excellent character work to make up for the relative lack of Things Happening. My main problem with The Galaxy, and the Ground Within is that Chambers seems to mistake cultural exchange for characterisation.

All of the Wayfarers novels have been centrally concerned with issues of representation and inclusion: the galaxy where they’re set is largely a welcoming and diverse place, with many of its public spaces designed to accommodate the very differing access needs of the species that live there. Queerness of all kinds is unremarkable; most characters (with notable exceptions) work comfortably alongside people who are different from them in various respects; the second novel in the series, A Closed and Common Orbit, features some pretty obvious trans themes. How successful the series actually is in tackling issues of social justice is up for debate, but they are undoubtedly there. The Galaxy, and the Ground Within follows up on this conversation by, essentially, having its characters sit around and explain the nuances of their differing cultures to each other.

The chief focus in this exercise is Speaker, a member of a species called the Akaraks whose history is one of colonisation and displacement. None of the other characters know anything substantial about the Akaraks – and what they do know is mostly false and discriminatory – because of that history, which has left them homeless, powerless and without representation in the galactic government. Speaker’s presence on Gora gives her an opportunity to correct the record, at least in a small way, by sharing facts about Akarak culture with the other travellers and pointing out commonplace inaccuracies.

There are two problems with this approach, one of which is a problem of execution and one of which is more foundational. Firstly, and least seriously: this is all very Structural Oppression 101. This is what unconscious bias looks like, this is what casual racism looks like, this is what institutional disenfranchisement looks like…And it’s not done subtly, through character action, through metanarrative, through dialogue; it’s just infodumped into the text, and it…sits there, doing nothing except making the other characters feel good about themselves for having acquired this knowledge.

Secondly, it is…not great to put the marginalised character in the position of having to explain her own marginalisation; to educate those more privileged than she is about her culture. The text does lampshade this, but, again, it doesn’t particularly do anything with the fact that Speaker’s forced to do it at all. We’ve been told over and over again in this series that this is an enlightened and tolerant galaxy: where are the allies in the group on Gora? Why couldn’t Chambers have a more privileged character step in to correct assumptions, to prevent everyone else quizzing Speaker? At one point, Roveg, a wealthy sim designer who’s been exiled from his home planet, does contemplate rescuing her, but instead begins asking his own questions because he is: curious. Oh, great. (I will note here that the Wayfarers universe has a fully-functioning interplanetary Internet analogue which we have seen characters using in previous instalments.)

This all bespeaks a kind of shallowness that characterises the novel as a whole, for me. This is a text about cultural difference and structural oppression that doesn’t have anything coherent to say about those things except “structural oppression is bad and tolerance is good”. It’s a character-focused novel whose characters are largely unremarkable and flat. It’s a novel that means well, but which ultimately fails to grapple with questions about what meaningful allyship looks like. It is, like all of Chambers’ books, a perfectly readable novel: gentle, sweet, unchallenging to Western liberal sensitivities. But it’s a clunky note on which to end a series.

Review: The Water Dancer

This review contains spoilers.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2019 novel The Water Dancer is speculative fiction doing what speculative fiction does best: defamiliarising the world and our place in it, calling us to see it with fresh eyes. Our protagonist is Hiram Walker, a slave on a declining plantation in antebellum Virginia who discovers that he has the power to move himself and other people over large distances through a process dubbed “conduction” – a process that seems to have a mystical connection to water. He uses this power to escape the plantation, joining up with an underground group of abolitionists working to move slaves north to freedom – and is forced to confront the question of what freedom truly means when your history has been taken from you.

Comparisons, usually negative ones, have inevitably been drawn between The Water Dancer and Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel The Underground Railroad, in which a fleeing slave escapes to a series of alternative futures using a literal hidden railway. Both novels, then, deploy magical realism to elide the actual journeys of their escaping characters in order to place their thematic focus elsewhere; both are interested in part in the motivations of white abolitionists and the way they were often just as racist as actual slaveowners. For my money, though – and perhaps this is because I am first and foremost an SFF reader, not a litfic reader – Coates’ novel is the more lyrical, the more compelling, and the more unusual.

Its key defamiliarisation tactic is not, in fact, its use of conduction, but the way that it almost never uses the word “slave” or “slavery”. Coates’ fictional Virginia features three different classes of people: the Tasked, the African-American slaves; the Quality, the white landowners; and the Low, working-class white people (usually men). To me this classification system registers as a little YA-dystopian, which I don’t mean as a negative comment: I think this is Coates’ comics background bleeding through, reminding us primarily that slavery was first and foremost a system of dehumanisation, a system based – like many YA dystopias – on an arbitrary construct (in this case, the construct of race).

One way in which The Water Dancer differs from Whitehead’s novel – and many other narratives of slavery – is that there is comparatively little on-page violence. Whitehead’s enslaved characters operate constantly under the threat of torture and rape. His protagonist Cora knows that the fate she will meet if she is recaptured will most likely be worse than death; and Whitehead does not shy away from depicting that possible fate as it is suffered by other would-be escapees. Lurking behind these depictions of violence is the reader’s knowledge that they are not solely fictional, that these punishments were inflicted upon fleeing slaves in real life. Coates’ novel is different: while we do hear about floggings, rape and straight-up medical neglect, it’s comparatively rare that they’re actually described on-page, and when we do see it it’s never as extreme as it is in The Underground Railroad. This is, I want to suggest, because Coates is interested in the institution of slavery itself as inherently dehumanising, rather than the atrocities that were inflicted upon Black bodies under the auspices of that institution.

Witness, for example, the role that memory plays in the novel. Conduction relies upon memory, and particularly upon cultural memory, on the history that links all the novel’s enslaved African-Americans together. In order to harness conduction so he can save more Tasked from the south, Hiram must reconnect with a long-lost memory of his dead mother. Lost families are everywhere in The Water Dancer: the plantation Tasked are terrified of being sent west to more prosperous states, as they’ll be separated from their families and communities; Hiram himself leaves behind a mother-figure, Thena, when he escapes. What slavery takes from its victims, then, is a sense of shared history, community and memory; working with the abolitionists, Hiram comes to understand, as his white colleagues cannot, that there is no true freedom without these things. That’s why conduction depends upon memory: Hiram is only able to bring freedom to the Tasked when he can restore a little of the shared culture that has been taken from them.

The Water Dancer is a novel, then, that uses the techniques of speculative fiction to defamiliarise the institution of slavery in order to re-emphasise its brutality; to draw attention away from the physical cruelty of slaveowners and their white staff and towards the way that slavery in and of itself had dehumanising effects that reverberate to this day. It’s a novel about family, about shared memory, about Black community, narrated in dreamy, elegant prose that emphasises the beauty and importance of the intangibles that Hiram is trying to return to his fellow Tasked. It’s the kind of novel that reminds me why I read SFF, and why SFF is a valuable pursuit.

Review: The Future of Another Timeline

Annalee Newitz’s second novel The Future of Another Timeline is a science fiction story about history: history’s malleability in the hands of those with power, and the way that history’s long arc of justice can be reversed.

In a universe where time travel exists and the past can be “edited” – leaving no trace in the memory of anyone but the time traveller who changed it – a group of feminists calling themselves the Daughters of Harriet (after Harriet Tubman, who in this world was elected a US Senator after American women gained the vote in 1869) attempt to combat the efforts of the incel-like followers of moralist and anti-abortionist Anthony Comstock as they strive to bring about a world in which women are little more than breeding stock.

Newitz is careful to make their definition of feminism an inclusive and intersectional one: the ranks of the Daughters of Harriet include trans women, non-binary folk and women of colour. A key plotline sees our point of view character Tess, a woman who lives in a contemporary America where abortion has never been legal, travel back in time to 1893, to the Chicago World’s Fair, to join working-class, free-thinking Middle Eastern belly dancers in working against Comstock in the time when he was alive. This is very much a text that’s interested in collective, grassroots action, in welcoming allies wherever they are to be found.

But it’s interested in the personal, too, as its other main storyline attests. Alongside her work in 1893, Tess is also, illicitly, making a number of visits to the timeline of a nineties teenager named Beth, whose friend Lizzie has become disconcertingly fond of murdering predatory men and whose father casts an abusive shadow over her life. The conditions that Tess finds herself existing in demonstrate the importance of what the Daughters of Harriet are doing, the difference that they stand to make to countless lives.

The metaphors that Newitz is working with, then, are fairly obvious. The Daughters’ “edit war” for history – and thus for the future – is a reflection partly of current movements across Anglo popular culture to reinscribe people with marginalised identities into history – to recover the erased stories of women, LGBT+ people and people of colour – and partly of the left’s fight against the erosion of the progress we have made in recent history. The Future of Another Timeline is partly about reclaiming the narrative, and partly about protecting the successes we’ve made from the people who’d like to destroy them so completely they might never have existed. (See: the proposed overturning of Roe v. Wade in the US, pretty much anything the UK Conservative party has done since 2016, etc., etc.)

It’s a satisfyingly crunchy speculative approach to representing the struggle for women’s rights: one that draws attention to little-remembered (but crucial) movements in US history in a way that’s thematically relevant as well as being a goal in itself; that asks, and leaves open, crucial questions about the role of violence in political action; that’s thoughtful about who gets to be included in stories about feminist uprisings. “Thoughtful” is the operative word here: like Alix E. Harrow’s 2020 historical fantasy The Once and Future Witches, one of the things Newitz is doing in The Future of Another Timeline is creating a new vision of feminism, one that brings everyone along on the journey to emancipation, rather than excluding everyone who isn’t a respectable middle-class white woman.

It’s a refreshingly unusual read: I don’t think I’ve read anything quite like it before, ranging as it does through a multitude of time periods, from the Cretaceous to the far, far future, and switching its focus from the personal to the political and back again within the space of a few chapters or so. But it failed, interestingly, to move me in the way I was moved by The Once and Future Witches; I think because it is so thoughtful, so careful, so academically inclined (Newitz was a science writer before they were a fiction writer), that there’s little space for human messinesses to slip in. Newitz is no prose stylist, either: their writing is competent but rarely elegant. The Future of Another Timeline offers a vision of our past, our present and our future that is, ultimately, hopeful; its trust is in the power of collective political action and allyship between marginalised groups. It’s a good read. But without that human angle, that deep connection with its characters, it’s hard, in the final analysis, to share fully in that trust, that hope.

Review: Windwitch

I’ve been thinking and writing a lot recently about the current drive in SFF for greater diversity of character, setting and narrative, for texts that acknowledge identities beyond the assumed white cishet norm and cultures outside the Western Anglosphere, and how that drive correlates – or not, as the case may be – with the actual quality of the texts that are being produced. Susan Dennard’s Windwitch, I’d argue, is an example of a text where an attempt at diversity has not made up for its other failures.

Windwitch is the sequel to Truthwitch, a fairly standard YA secondary world fantasy novel that was distinguished primarily by the relationship between its two female leads, Safi and Iseult. Back when the novel was published in 2016 it was still fairly rare to encounter strong platonic female friendships in fiction (it’s not exactly common even now), and so the deep, abiding relationship Safi and Iseult develop in Truthwitch was pretty refreshing to read.

However, the end of the novel sees them split up, and, crucially, they remain apart throughout Windwitch – and with their relationship taking a back seat in this second instalment, the rest of what’s going on in the book begins to look rather tired and familiar. There’s a pirate town and a game of wits; a long trek through the wilderness; a city under threat of magical war, its people starving and mistreated. There’s a magic system that’s so mechanical it feels arbitrary, abstracted from any sort of metaphorical resonance (I am not a fan of structured magic systems for precisely this reason); a prince (Safi’s love interest) presumed dead but actually not; a wicked scheming princess who takes advantage of his absence to seize power. (Actually the princess turns out to be not that wicked after all, and in fact slightly badass, but I admit that by the time this revelation occurred I had sort of stopped caring.) The class dynamics are exactly as you’d expect from this type of story: pretty much every major character is privileged either by their birth or by their possession of magical powers. The one exception is…problematic in other ways. And this is where Dennard’s somewhat misguided attempt at diversity comes in.

The character in question, Cam, is currently the aforementioned Prince Merik’s only supporter/comrade/general helper. He presents as male, but Merik, having accidentally spotted him binding his breasts one (1) time, concludes that he’s actually a woman who chooses to dress as a man for reasons that Merik magnanimously decides not to quiz him about. (That “magnanimously” is sarcasm, by the way.) It becomes clear at the end of the novel, when Merik and Cam have a blazing row, that Cam is a trans man, not a crossdressing woman. Which…great! Trans rep, right? But the upshot of Merik’s obliviousness is that he spends the entire novel misgendering Cam – and, because every scene that Cam is in is told from Merik’s point of view, that means the voice of the novel is misgendering Cam too. This, to put it mildly, is not great. After their row, Merik does resolve to use the correct pronouns for Cam, but the damage is done: the novel has consistently centred a cis character and his personal growth at the expense of a trans character.

This is a pattern that we see over and over in texts about people with marginalised identities. The very existence of this pattern makes it clear that, no, the mere presence of a marginalised character is not and will never be enough to make a book good. Windwitch is ultimately disappointing because it replaces some highly effective representation that defies the gaze of the hegemonic group – the representation of a platonic, abiding female friendship that remains unaffected by Safi’s attraction to Merik – with some very poor representation that prioritises the gaze of the hegemonic group. This isn’t a series that I plan to return to.

Review: A Red-Rose Chain

The ninth entry in Seanan McGuire’s Toby Daye series, A Rose-Red Chain introduces a welcome breath of fresh air into what was in danger of becoming a rather repetitive collection of plots, motifs and themes. Instead of charging off into mortal physical peril as she usually does, changeling PI Toby is in this instalment tasked with diplomatic negotiations: in this case, persuading the belligerent King Rhys of the Kingdom of Silences not to wage war against her monarch, Queen Arden in the Mists.

She is, naturally, monumentally bad at this.

Putting Toby on the political stage is an interesting choice: although previous instalments have shown her to be well-connected – she’s dating a King of Cats, her squire is the (disguised) Crown Prince of the Westlands, she’s on first-name terms with the Luidaeg, a Firstborn who terrifies pretty much all of Faerie – her adventures up to this point have tended to treat her as a powerful individual rather than someone moving through a web of influence and connections. They’ve been about her ability to investigate disappearances, to draw on contacts for information, to fight, to use her blood-working magic. We haven’t really seen her try to change Faerie in any kind of systematic way.

It’s quite fun, then, seeing her navigate the intricacies of a strange court, fending off the icy hostility of the pureblood fae who believe that she, being a changeling, is worse than nothing. The plot, as is usual for this series, rattles on at a good pace, bringing new revelations at every turn. Magical mutilation! Goblin fruit! Changeling cats! All good stuff. The climax does inevitably involve Toby suffering catastrophic injuries that would kill anyone else, but for the most part there is refreshingly little blood.

On the other hand, placing Toby in a diplomatic context does kind of reveal the paucity of the series’ political world – or, more specifically, Toby’s political imagination. Toby’s soapbox issue is changeling rights, and, given that the series hews very closely to her point of view, it’s also the primary political issue we encounter in Faerie. But Toby’s efforts to improve the lot of changelings, most of whom are very much less privileged than she, are for the most part reactive rather than proactive: she’ll help specific changelings, usually magically, when the plot gives her the opportunity to do so, but she rarely takes the initiative to alter changelings’ status in fae society in general. (It doesn’t really help that one of the main ways the series indicates which characters are sympathetic is whether they are nice to changelings or not: the action Toby habitually takes against corrupt fae rulers therefore does technically improve the lot of changelings, but that’s not usually her immediate motivation in deposing them.)

This is a problem because Toby’s trajectory throughout the series has been about her coming from a place of oppression – her changeling status has seen her abused by the pureblood community and, at the start of the first book, turned into a fish for 14 years, leaving her at the very edge of both fae and human society when she’s restored – to a place of privilege: she’s built a family of sorts around her, cementing her place in the fae social order. As readers we’ve been conditioned to care about changelings and to be outraged at their treatment, because we care about Toby and all that she has lost. In this context, the loss of the urgency with which the earlier books approached changeling rights, Toby’s failure to give the changelings behind her a hand up, feels jarring, at odds with our understanding of Toby as a champion of the oppressed and an all-round good person.

Of course, not every novel has to be a trenchant political treatise; it just so happens that politics and ideas are a big part of what I read for, and a big part of what I remember and find notable about what I read. The Toby Daye novels are fun, light reads that make full use of the resonances of Celtic folklore, and A Red-Rose Chain is a strong entry in the series. That it’s not as politically conscious as I personally would like it to be is not wholly its fault.

Film Review: Addams Family Values

A singularly cursèd text, and that is all I have to say about it.

(For some reason the way the film sexualises the classically grotesque Fester really disturbed me in a way that’s probably very Gothic, if you wanted to psychoanalyse it. I also thought it would have been 100% more interesting as a viewing experience had it been what the first few scenes promised, a film about a hyper-competent nanny who is entirely unfazed by the Addams children’s supernatural shenanigans, instead of following a hoary old “golddigger murderess” plot.

Also, yes, I liked the summer camp set piece, thought the racial politics were pretty on point for the 90s, but wish Wednesday’s speech about the oppression of Native Americans had been given to an actual Native American character.)

Review: The Dragon Republic

This review contains spoilers for The Poppy War and The Dragon Republic.

The sequel to R.F. Kuang’s explosive first novel The Poppy War, The Dragon Republic confronts the spectre of imperialism even as it appears to de-emphasise its effects. Set in the fictional country of Nikara, a clear analogue of medieval China, it follows protagonist Rin in the aftermath of her decision to destroy the oppressive Federation of Mugen at the end of The Poppy War. Traumatised both by this decision and by the atrocities she witnessed during the Mugenese invasion, she and the shamanistic military unit she commands, the Cike, decide to join a military effort led by the warlord Vaisra to overthrow the Empress and bring democracy to Nikara. Rin hopes thereby to gain revenge on the Empress for her collaboration with the Mugenese. Vaisra, however, is being bankrolled by the Hesperians, this world’s version of white Europeans, who demand as the price of their support unrestricted access to Rin’s person, ostensibly for research purposes: the Hesperians believe that Rin’s shamanistic powers are a manifestation of Chaos, which, according to their uncompromising theology, must be stamped out in all its forms. For most of the novel the Hesperians appear to be minor, if annoying, participants in the grand political drama unfolding across Nikara, despite various indications to the contrary that crop up throughout the narrative; by the time it becomes apparent that they are behind vastly more of the novel’s political developments than anyone, including the reader, has realised, it is of course much too late.

The entire novel, then, is a lovely piece of authorial sleight-of-hand that enacts the ways in which white imperialism hides behind self-professedly noble intentions and disinterested philanthropy. Unfortunately, though, the very structure of the novel means that the Hesperians’ machinations largely take place off-page; while this does, importantly, centre Kuang’s non-Western characters, it also means that the novel’s focus lies mainly on the volatile political position Rin and the Cike find themselves in, and the military adventures they’re drawn into as they attempt to navigate it. Which, frankly, is not where my interest lies as a reader: it all feels rather grim, rather unrelentingly cynical, to me. It doesn’t help that Rin’s primary motivation throughout the novel is revenge: that cold-blooded, single-minded drive to get back at someone who has wronged you, personally, is not really an emotion I’m personally familiar with, and as a result I find it kind of hard to identify with characters whose arcs are powered by that urge.

A mismatch between book and reader, then. As I’ve said, I think the structure of The Dragon Republic is actually kind of masterful, and I’d love to have had more of that structural trickery. But, on the whole, this isn’t a novel that I’m going to feel inclined to read again.

Review: Come Tumbling Down

I never seem to have very much to say about Seanan McGuire’s work, despite quite enjoying it when I actually read it. The fifth novella in her Wayward Children series, Come Tumbling Down, is a case in point. Featuring the students of a school for children who once entered other worlds, Narnia-style, and returned to this world only to find the doorways back shut for good, the novella sees a former student of the school, Jack, who managed in an earlier installment to re-enter her magical country, turn up in its basement again in the body of her villainous sister, Jill. Jack and her lover Alexis solicit the help of some of the school’s current students to help Jack get her true body back, a quest that sees them all plunge into the Gothic fantasyland the Moors, where mad scientists pit their strengths against decadent vampires and strange sects worship ancient sea monsters.

It has to be said that this is one hell of a premise. And its execution is at least appropriately toothsome: by which I mean that it has a faintly addictive quality that keeps one racing nicely through the text. The camaraderie between the students of the Home for Wayward Children is also quite nice: as I said earlier this week in my review of Sarah Gailey’s Upright Women Wanted, these children are, in the world of the novella, effectively marginalised by their fantastical experiences (which few of the adults in their lives can understand), and that fictional marginalisation manifests in some cases as real-world marginalisation: Jack is gay and has OCD; Kade, one of the current students who embarks on the quest to help her, is trans; Sumi, another student, is Japanese. So, while the Home functions as a place where those who have lost the lands they loved can find solidarity and understanding, it also, by extension, functions as a space where those with real-world marginalisations receive support and acceptance. In that respect, it, like Gailey’s text, has aspects of wish fulfilment: every character in McGuire’s novella, apart from the obvious baddies (who are very obvious indeed) is genuinely trying their best to be a good person and a supportive friend.

That is, I guess, my problem with Come Tumbling Down, one of the key reasons it’s failed to take root in my imagination: it’s all very…straightforward. It is, at all times, obvious who we are supposed to root for. It’s obvious what the right way to be supportive is. (There is no point, for example, at which different needs clash.) In fact, despite its representation of marginalised identities, it feels distinctly under-politicised, like its speculative metaphors could be better deployed to create real-world meanings.

This, I think, is something that afflicts all of McGuire’s work, including her influential Toby Daye series: she knows her mythology, she’s not afraid to hurt her characters, but she never quite gives her work the political resonance or complexity it needs to be truly memorable. Ultimately, Come Tumbling Down is fine. It was a fun enough read at the time. But I would have liked – a little more oomph.