Author: englishstudens

Review: All Systems Red

This review contains spoilers.

All Systems RedMartha Wells’ Murderbot Diaries, which All Systems Red kicks off, have been quite prodigiously popular among science fiction fans: this first instalment won the 2018 Hugo and Nebula awards for Best Novella; its follow-up Artificial Condition won a Hugo again in 2019; Rogue Protocol and Exit Strategy both won enough votes to be nominated in the same year; and a full-length novel, Network Effect, is up for the Hugo this year. It’s a pretty impressive track record.

The titular Murderbot is a SecUnit, a type of cyborg owned by a company that rents out equipment to planetary exploration teams. Unbeknownst to the company or to its clients, Murderbot has hacked its governor module, meaning it no longer has to obey human commands. It uses its newfound freedom to watch soap operas; in general, its primary goal in life is to be left alone. However, when the survey team it’s been rented to starts finding inexplicable discrepancies in the information they’ve been provided about the planet they’re exploring, Murderbot is forced into closer companionship with its human clients than it would like as it attempts to protect them from an unknown threat.

None of this, on the face of it, is especially groundbreaking. Stories that explore the personhood of artificial intelligences and robots are two a penny; the trope is so abundant, in fact, that mainstream authors have begun to examine it. Nor is All Systems Red‘s plot particularly complex or insightful: Murderbot and the humans get into trouble, and then get out of it; during the course of the story, Murderbot unexpectedly finds companionship, sympathy and a measure of self-determination.

The worldbuilding and Murderbot’s characterisation, though, are what give the novella its moreish quality. Wells is particularly good on what it feels like to live under capitalist conditions: the characters’ complete reliance on the equipment they’ve been supplied by the rental company – equipment which, as we know from Murderbot, is cheaply made and frequently faulty – is an affective reminder of the ubiquity of capitalism and the way it shapes every part of our lives. Similarly, in their attempts to deduce who’s responsible for the danger they’re in, Murderbot and the rest of the survey team are constantly thinking through the logics of capitalism, the kinds of crime that would benefit the company most: so, the company will take a bribe to conceal information from its clients, but will probably not actually hurt them, since that would cost it money. Again, the workings of capitalism are constantly foregrounded in the text, which incidentally makes the world of the novella feel very familiar and legible – since it operates along the exact same economic lines our own world does.

But it’s Murderbot itself that I suspect lies at the heart of the series’ popularity. Murderbot is genderless and asexual. It’s also painfully socially awkward, hating to make eye contact with humans and turning to face the wall when too many people are looking at it. And it cares intensely about the media it consumes.

Murderbot is basically a massive queer nerd.

More seriously, this all feels like an extension of the conversation SF has been having in recent years about who gets to see themselves represented. Many of the stories that make a case for the personhood of robots and AIs paradoxically adopt quite a narrow definition of “personhood” – one that’s generally based on normative, allosexual and neurotypical assumptions about what humans are like. For example, a robot might be shown to be deserving of personhood because it falls in love. It’s refreshing, then, to see a sympathetic robot character who falls outside those parameters, who exhibits both neuroatypical and asexual characteristics – especially given how rare explicitly ace characters still are in all kinds of fiction. It’s a corrective to the normativity of this kind of story.

Ultimately I don’t think All Systems Red is really that groundbreaking: Murderbot is too readily sympathetic a character really to challenge our notions of personhood, and I think even the critique of capitalism is mostly defanged by the novella’s consolatory ending, in which Murderbot is bought by the survey team and essentially freed. Having said that, though, the fact that it does hit so many familiar narrative beats makes it a pretty enjoyable, comfortable read: it’s solid science fiction, well-told, with a relatable protagonist and a convincing world. That’s a combination that’s rarer than you might think.

Review: Paper Girls 1

Paper Girls 1It’s always a little difficult to review single volumes of ongoing graphic novel series, as by their very nature they tend to be open-ended and incomplete rather than self-cohesive works in their own right. Paper Girls 1 is no exception: written by Brian K. Vaughan, creator of Saga, and illustrated by Cliff Chiang, it’s set on Hallowe’en night in 1988, when four 12-year-old newspaper delivery girls stumble into a series of events that’s literally out of this world. Aliens, dinosaurs, time travellers, weird portals in the sky – it’s all here, and the narrative’s fast pace and the fact that it’s setting up what’s obviously going to become quite a complex SF plot means that it’s not easy to make sense of how all these diverse speculative elements hang together.

The four girls, though, sassy, independent, loyal heroines that they are, ground the story in a compelling emotional reality that keeps us reading despite the, well, trippiness of the sci-fi. The book isn’t ultimately about aliens and dinosaurs and time travellers; it’s about the girls’ friendship and their determination to be as good as the boys who traditionally do their job. It’s building on the trend for nostalgic speculative tales like Stranger Things and Ready Player One, only in a way that directly addresses the social inequalities and forms of oppression that characterised the eras audiences are nostalgic for. One of the girls, for instance, uses homophobic slurs early in the volume and is immediately called out on it; obviously your response to this sort of thing will depend heavily on how much you trust the author, but to me it felt like a creative team honouring the things they felt nostalgic for while also resisting the rose-tinted glasses that nostalgia can give us. It’s the kind of choice that made me confident about continuing the series, knowing that wherever the plot was going it would be somewhere thoughtful, original and emotionally satisfying.

Review: Warm Bodies

Warm BodiesThe figure of the zombie as we know it today is a relatively recent invention, despite its roots in Haitian folklore: Wikipedia locates its genesis in Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, which inspired Oscar Romero’s seminal Dawn of the Dead. Unlike its Gothic-romantic counterpart the vampire, the zombie tends to turn up in science-fictional stories governed by the principles of rationality; its horror springs from its revolting materiality, its mechanistic mindlessness. It represents humanity reduced to the grossly physical, to mindless consumption; and, as a result, has often been read as a metaphor for the human condition under capitalism, or for capitalism itself.

It’s fitting, therefore, that the zombies who people Isaac Marion’s novel Warm Bodies occupy an abandoned airport. Very little says “unchecked Western capitalism” better than the home of a planet-destroying industry stuffed with glitzy shops selling overpriced sandwiches to a captive clientele. Our hero-narrator, R, is a zombie who, according to Niall Harrison,

finds himself locked into a grey reenactment of the values conventionally ascribed to suburban America, complete with a zombie wife, two zombie kids in zombie school, trips to zombie church, and occasional visits to see his zombie slacker friend, M, to goof off and get high.

On a trip to the nearest human city with said friend, however, everything changes. R consumes the brain of a teenager named Perry, giving him insights into Perry’s life and feelings, which in turn move him to save the life of Perry’s girlfriend Juliet by leading her back to the airport and concealing her from his fellow zombies in the grounded plane that he calls home. The story develops fairly conventionally from there: R and Juliet fall in love, face persecution and disgust from their respective societies, and work to create a new and more tolerant status quo built on something beyond fear and necessity.

The novel received quite favourable reviews, and was adapted for film in 2013, three years after it was published. I can see why: it’s an unexpectedly thoughtful, layered read given its marketing as a zombie rom-com, with lucid, image-laden prose that extrapolates R and Juliet’s romance into something universal and deeply human:

Deep under our feet the Earth holds its molten breath, while the bones of countless generations watch us and wait.

It’s also interested in questions of how and how best to remake the broken world its characters find themselves in that resonate with our own political moment, and with the capitalist connotations of the zombie figure. There’s a suggestion that the zombie “curse”, and the authoritarian human society that has risen up in response to it, are in some way extensions of the divisions that existed in the pre-apocalyptic world, our own world – and that fixing the situation long-term will require a healing of those divisions and a return to a more emotionally authentic way of being. There’s also an interesting moment early in the novel when R, reflecting on the murder and terror he inflicts as a zombie, tells us:

I don’t like pain, I don’t like hurting people, but it’s the world now.

It’s a rationalisation that feels very familiar in a global economy that relies on the pain and exploitation of the many in order to secure the wealth of the few. It’s just the way the world is. But, instead of accepting the status quo, Warm Bodies encourages us to try and change it.

Nevertheless, I didn’t, ultimately, get on very well with the novel. Structurally and thematically, I don’t think it’s as radical as it would like to be: it’s basically a conventional YA dystopia mashed up with a conventional cishet love story in a way that sort of shrieks “marketability”. Its questions about whether survival should be bought at the cost of freedom and its reevaluation of the monstrous are neither original nor elaborated on in any particularly unusual way. In short it feels like too much of a carefully manufactured corporate product to be convincing as an anti-capitalist rallying call. (See also: film adaptation!)

Is all art produced under capitalist conditions compromised? Yes, probably, when gatekeepers are concerned primarily with the saleability of a particular work rather than, necessarily, its radical potential. The commercial success of anti-establishment narratives like Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games goes to show, I think, that such narratives actually prop up the status quo by selling audiences the fantasy of rebellion, an illusion of resistance that merely keeps us all complacent. That’s exactly the problem with Warm Bodies, for me: despite its strong, intelligent writing, it’s not interested in actually scrutinising any of the assumptions upon which our cultural narratives are based. For a text that’s ostensibly about the struggle to reimagine how the world works, that’s a major flaw.

Review: The Singer’s Gun

The Singer's GunIt’s hard to believe The Singer’s Gun came out twelve years ago. The second novel by Canadian novelist Emily St. John Mandel, its examination of the complex morality of immigration fraud feels like a response to the increasingly xenophobic attitudes we’re seeing across the West right now: the arbitrary detention of EU nationals at UK airports; the illegal pushbacks of refugee boats in the Mediterranean; the rise in hate crimes committed against Asian-American people in the US. It’s a sobering reminder that these problems are years, maybe decades, in the making.

Anton Waker has grown up among criminals: his parents run an antiques warehouse selling stolen goods, and he himself has been involved in supplying forged American passports and green cards to illegal aliens. Now, he’s cleaned up his act somewhat, having got himself a well-paying office job off the back of a forged diploma from Harvard. That all changes, though, when after a routine background check his secretary disappears and he’s moved to a shabby office on an abandoned floor without explanation. The jig, it would seem, is up for Anton. Needing to leave the country in a hurry, he agrees to do one last job for Aria in return for leaving the family business altogether.

Mandel has a talent for writing flawed characters with grace and compassion. Anton has made some bad decisions off his own back, but the text makes clear that pressure from loving parents and a familial culture of mistrust in social institutions like universities and corporate culture have made it extremely difficult for him to leave corruption behind. The sympathy this generates for Anton allows Mandel to open up a conversation about the ethics of his criminal past with Aria. He considers immigration fraud a victimless crime, even a noble one, giving desperate people a chance at a better life in the States. But the government investigator looking into Aria’s activities reminds him – and us – that it’s not just about forging passports: the darker side of immigration crime involves human trafficking, here specifically focalised through the case of a shipping container full of dead girls, abandoned by the criminals who transported them to America to exploit them.

The investigator’s point is that it’s a slippery slope from forging green cards to human trafficking. But, through Anton’s perspective, the text is also questioning the attitude to immigration that makes such crimes possible in the first place. (Anton’s family are, if I’m not misremembering, immigrants themselves; that’s at the root of their distrust for the government, and part of what humanises them.) For all that this is a novel about murder, blackmail and organised crime, it’s a surprisingly compassionate and gentle read, its very gentleness allowing it to ask some probing and startlingly relevant questions. I’ll definitely be seeking out more of Mandel’s work.

Review: Harrow the Ninth

Harrow the NinthAbigail Nussbaum rather damningly describes Tamsyn Muir’s Harrow the Ninth – sequel to Muir’s massively popular lesbian-necromancer debut Gideon the Ninth – as “a glib work that never entirely convinces you of its characters’ humanity”. It’s easy to see why: despite Harrow‘s much-remarked-upon structural fireworks, there’s a kind of glittering superficiality to it that’s somehow reinforced by the batshit complexity of its plot.

Following the events of Gideon the Ninth, in which Harrowhark Nonagesimus, the last scion of a crumbling House of necromancers, and her acerbic cavalier (basically: swordsperson) Gideon Nav, underwent a series of trials designed by the godlike Emperor of Muir’s world for the purpose of selecting a new Lyctor (a sort of superpowered bodyguard-cum-companion-cum-general), Harrow finds herself in the company of the Emperor and his older Lyctors. She’s supposed to be in training to fight against the enormous Resurrection Beasts, impossibly destructive beings that are essentially byproducts of necromancy; but she’s dangerously hampered by the fact that, unlike the other Lyctors, she’s unable to access the skills and power of her cavalier. Her memory of the events of Gideon the Ninth is also drastically different to what we know to have happened in that book, and, most devastatingly of all, she appears to have forgotten Gideon entirely. The bulk of the novel is dedicated to unfolding these mysteries – or, rather, to Harrow’s attempts to survive long enough to do so.

Let’s be honest: this is very clearly a novel – a series – whose origins lie in a very particular Internet culture. Before embarking on her professional career, Muir wrote Homestuck fanfiction; her Tumblr blog from that period is still accessible. As a result, the Locked Tomb series feels pretty much tailored to the SFF zeitgeist. Its central conceit – star-crossed lesbian necromancers IN SPACE! – springs recognisably from the recent focus on the representation of marginalised identities in genre; a focus that, according to YouTuber Sarah Z, was particularly important in Tumblr culture. In short, queer readers want to see queer characters perform the same sort of heroics that cishet characters get to; Muir’s books let them do that.

The intensity of Gideon and Harrow’s relationship also comes, I’d say, from fanfiction and from shipping culture; as does the byzantine lengths Muir goes to in order to demonstrate the strength of their bond (Harrow, it turns out, has deliberately forgotten Gideon in an attempt to keep her alive). The way Muir handles the complexity of her plot here, doling out answers bit by bit, reminds me more of a sprawling, lore-heavy media property like Doctor Who than of any traditional novel; it feels practically designed to fuel fan speculation (incidentally, or perhaps not, the third novel in the series, Alecto the Ninth, is due out in 2022).

This might all seem painfully obvious. But my point is not that these influences exist – Muir puts honest-to-goodness Internet memes in her novel, for gods’ sake – it’s that queer representation is the entirety of what the books are doing. The main reason for their existence is so that queer readers can see themselves and their necessarily-dramatic relationships in a speculative-fictional setting. That’s where the superficiality comes from: these are novels that are just completely unapologetic about their queerness, their campiness. They’re all aesthetic.

Mind, I’m not saying this is a bad thing – not entirely. There’s still I think relatively little work in the mainstream SFF sphere that ‘s revelling quite so obviously in its queer aesthetic, and even less that focuses to this extent on a queer couple. I’m not convinced that Harrow the Ninth should be on the Best Novel Hugo ballot this year: as a work in itself it stands alone poorly, and I definitely think it’s a stretch to call a novel that’s all surface the best of the year. But I would be lying if I claimed to be immune to the allure of Lesbian Necromancers In Space!! and the tortured intensity of Gideon and Harrow’s relationship. I’ll be reading Alecto the Ninth for sure.

Review: Piranesi

This review contains spoilers.

PiranesiI realised that the search for the Knowledge has encouraged us to think of the House as if it were a sort of riddle to be unravelled, a text to be interpreted, and that if ever we discover the Knowledge, then it will be as if the Value has been wrested from the House and all that remains will be mere scenery.

Knowledge is the concept that lies at the heart of Susanna Clarke’s second novel Piranesi, a startlingly controlled follow-up to her 780-page fantasy classic Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. The eponymous protagonist of this slim little novel inhabits a vast and largely empty House consisting of endless receding hallways filled with statues. The lower halls are flooded, and the clouds in the upper halls produce rain; Piranesi lives off the seaweed and shellfish he finds in the lower halls, and spends his time exploring the House and observing its seasons and the habits of the birds that dwell there. He believes that there are just 15 people who have ever lived, counting himself, the 13 skeletons he’s discovered in various parts of the House, and the Other.

The Other’s appearance on page 21 of the novel marks an important shift in the narrative: it’s the first time we really become aware that Piranesi doesn’t have the full picture; the first time that we, with our privileged frame of reference, know more than him. The Other has a smartphone, which Piranesi recognises only as a “shining device”; he wears a smart wool suit, a fact which jars against our understanding of the subsistence lifestyle Piranesi is scratching out in the House; and he mentions the word “Battersea”, which Piranesi doesn’t recognise at all, but which British readers will know as a landmark from our own world. In short, it’s fairly clear to us that the Other is lying to Piranesi for his own ends.

What those ends are becomes clear fairly quickly: the Other believes that the House can give him access to strange and mysterious powers if he can only find the right ritual to perform to make it happen. The passage I quoted at the start of this review sets out Piranesi’s musings when the Other enlists him in this search, and it illustrates one of the modes of knowing with which the novel is concerned: a mode in which knowledge is useful as a means to an end. It’s implicitly contrasted with the way that Piranesi approaches the acquisition of knowledge: he explores and observes the House for the sake of the knowledge itself, as an act of veneration and almost of worship. “The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite,” Piranesi tells us.

It’s clear, I think, which mode of knowing Clarke thinks is preferable. The Other’s search for ultimate power makes him selfish (he doesn’t notice for almost a year that Piranesi’s shoes have worn out) and unable to appreciate the beauty of the House; and his erstwhile academic mentor, Laurence Arne-Sayles, who researches ancient rituals in order, similarly, to rediscover sources of power, is outright evil. Piranesi’s curiosity about the world, meanwhile, allows him to adapt to his environment and even thrive in it; it’s part of what helps him survive the trauma of being kidnapped and trapped in the House for years, a trauma he doesn’t even remember.

But this value system is complicated by the structure of the novel and the way Clarke takes advantage of our generic expectations. The shift in how much we know relative to Piranesi that happens when the Other enters the narrative essentially aligns us with the Other even as we start to suspect his motives, because he is a representative of our world and Piranesi isn’t; because the fact that he brings smartphones and wool suits and Battersea into the alien world of the House cues us to start reading the novel differently, as inhabitants of the real world rather than as fantasy readers plunged into an unfamiliar secondary world. We start reading it in the same way that the Other sees the House: not for its own sake, but in search of answers, to solve the puzzle of the House and of Piranesi’s place in it. Who is the Other, and why is he lying to Piranesi? Why does he never spend more than an hour in the House? Who is the mysterious 16 (the sixteenth person to enter the House) and why does the Other warn Piranesi away from them?

Clarke, it seems to me, deliberately encourages this mode of reading in her pacing, the way she gradually reveals just enough information to keep us wanting more without ever dumping enough for us to relax. The novel unfolds, in other words, like a thriller, propulsive and efficient, as we discover the House’s secrets and the magnitude of the events that led Piranesi there. The world that Clarke builds in it has a spectacular ruined grandeur, a misty beauty, but she doesn’t encourage us to linger in it as Piranesi does.

There’s also the problem that Piranesi’s open-mindedness is a direct product of trauma: he was essentially an entirely different person before he entered the House, and that person is now lost. And his absolute trust in the House leaves him open to the Other’s manipulation: he assumes that the Other has nicer stuff than he does because the House gives it to him, rather than realising that the Other has come from outside (although it’s not clear how much of this effect is down to the amnesia that the House induces in the humans who enter it). So although Piranesi’s search for knowledge for its own sake – which is specifically aligned with ancient modes of knowing and relating to the world – is philosophically preferable to the Other’s and Arne-Sayles’ search for power, I think part of the melancholy of Clarke’s story comes from the fact that Piranesi’s approach struggles to survive contact with modernity.

The novel, then, picks up on a theme prominent in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell – that of the disenchantment of the world and the loss of wonder that modernity has brought in its wake. The twin protagonists of the earlier novel were engaged in the project of reenchanting their Regency milieu. Perhaps Piranesi, with his open-hearted kindness and generosity, can do the same for us.

Review: Dzur

DzurSomething that’s interesting about how Steven Brust’s Dzur tends to be received is that, while people tend not to have a lot to say about the book (the top-rated reviews on Goodreads are mostly only two to three paragraphs long), they do all mention the food. The tenth book in Brust’s fantasy series following the adventures of wisecracking assassin Vlad Taltos, Dzur has a fairly complicated and not all that memorable plot to do with Vlad’s ex-wife Cawti and the criminal gang (the Jhereg, in Brust’s nomenclature) attempting to move in on her turf, whom Vlad must placate, persuade and otherwise buy off so they’ll leave her alone. It’s framed, though, by a seven-course meal at Valabar’s, Vlad’s favourite restaurant: each chapter is preceded by a description of one of the courses, or of the wine Vlad and his dining companions are drinking, or of the petits-fours they’re served.

This series has always been interested in food: Vlad is never far from a good meal, or a glass of fine wine; and he’s a handy cook, too. There’s something very practical about this trait of his: while he enjoys good food, and recognises bad, he’s not a food snob – he’s just as happy eating sausages and flatbread from a street stall as he is at Valabar’s. He reads like someone who enjoys food because he’s known what it likes to be really hungry; his interest in food, in other words, is about survival.

And so Brust’s decision to pair the meal at Valabar’s with this complex, political plot about Jhereg infighting and organised crime is saying something very interesting about the world in which Vlad moves. The extortion and bribery that Vlad and his associates engage in – activities that Cawti eschews, which is partly why the Jhereg are threatening her position – are, like the simple elemental pleasures of eating, a matter of survival.

This ties in, I think, to the series’ examination of class: Vlad, as a human in a world of elf-like Dragaerans, is a member of a barely-tolerated underclass; as such, unlike the Dragaeran Cawti, he doesn’t have the luxury of choosing a less illegal approach to life, certainly if he wants to stay alive.

It’s these revelations about the way that Dragaeran society works, and the various ways its class structures are enforced, that makes these novels interesting: I’m not particularly grabbed by Brust’s twisty, concept-heavy plots, which often rely on the reader remembering conversations and details from a hundred pages ago that weren’t at the time flagged as being of particular import or interest. Vlad’s ambiguous social position, as a member of a disenfranchised minority who’s nevertheless achieved a measure of influence in Dragaeran society, makes him a fascinating protagonist, as does his failure to adhere to standard expectations for a lead character in a fantasy novel, even an amoral one. Ultimately, though, while I find the Vlad Taltos books conceptually energising, and I appreciate what Brust’s trying to do in them, the actual reading experience never quite seems to deliver; I’m not sure that Vlad’s living up to his full potential.

Review: An Artificial Night

This review contains spoilers.

An Artificial NightThe third novel in Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series, An Artificial Night is I think the first to retool recognisable folkloric intertexts, rather than simply refer to mythological concepts and fairytale tropes. Tam Lin and the Wild Hunt are both in evidence here, as half-fae PI Toby is called on to rescue missing fae and human children from the fearsome Blind Michael and his Ride, which transforms its victims in terrifying ways.

At the most basic level, Blind Michael and his Ride, like their folkloric counterparts the Wild Hunt, represent the wild wood, the untameable forest, all that is dark and unknowable about nature; if we wanted to get Lacanian about it, we could describe the periodic return of the Ride as an unavoidable irruption of the Real into the life of Faerie, which, with its emphasis on arcane rules, promises and rituals is highly Symbolic. Named explicitly as a hero multiple times in the text, Toby becomes in this novel a guardian of the Symbolic order and of the fae culture that stands in opposition to the wild forces of nature. (This contrast between nature and culture, Real and Symbolic, is of course a deeply familiar one in Western literature: it’s there in almost every fairy and folk tale, including Tam Lin itself.)

But, as the only character in An Artificial Night who passes regularly between our world and that of Blind Michael, Toby is also a liminal, in-between figure, and we can see this playing out in other aspects of her characterisation too. She’s a changeling, half-human and half-fae, an in-between status that pureblood fae see as dangerous, an indicator of future madness, as we saw in the previous novel A Local Habitation. She’s also someone to whom the normal laws of Faerie don’t quite seem to apply: she’s friends with the sea-witch the Luidaeg, who terrifies most of Faerie’s other inhabitants; when we first met her in Rosemary and Rue, she was choosing to live as a human, ignoring, to some extent, the conventions of alliegance that govern Faerie. In An Artificial Night, moreover, she’s also revealed as someone who hovers between life and death, thanks to a death wish manifesting as a hero complex.

This liminality enables McGuire to explore the contradictions inherent in Toby’s psyche, and thus by way of identification that of the reader. Toby’s heroism, as we have seen, makes her a representative of order and of culture; but her potential madness and her death wish are reflections of something darker; they show her affinity with Blind Michael’s nonsense-realm, ruled by the logic of children’s rhymes, expressions of the blind forces of nature and of the Real. (To enter Blind Michael’s realm, Toby is turned into a child, perhaps representing a return to the Lacanian stage of development that precedes the Symbolic.) Her destruction of Blind Michael, then, represents her overcoming those forces within herself, and her re-identification with the Symbolic order.

This isn’t exactly groundbreaking, as a textual strategy; as I’ve said, you can find similar story-structures in pretty much every Western fairytale. But, perhaps paradoxically, that’s what makes it work: McGuire’s identified what makes these intensely familiar (to Western readers) stories tick, and transported them into a modern milieu, with a nicely conflicted New Adult-ish heroine; the result is vastly more resonant than a lot of fairytale retellings and urban fantasy (Sookie Stackhouse, I’m looking at you). It’s not going to set the world on fire, or inspire new insights into the human condition; and Toby’s hero complex can be downright annoying, as when she returns to Blind Michael’s realm after being dramatically rescued from that very place by a phalanx of devoted friends. But it is, on the whole, very readable. I’d happily read it again, even.

Review: A Local Habitation

This review contains spoilers.

A Local HabitationMurder mystery and techno-gothic are odd bedfellows, as are fairies and computers, but Seanan McGuire achieves an interesting synthesis in A Local Habitation. This, the second novel in her immensely popular urban fantasy series following the half-human, half-fae PI October “Toby” Daye, sees our protagonist sent by her liege Sylvester to the fae County of Tamed Lightning to check up on Sylvester’s niece January, who’s been out of contact for a couple of months. January’s outfit turns out to be a tech company where people are dying in mysterious ways; they’ve been keeping it quiet so as not to draw the attention of local fiefdoms who’d be more than happy to move in on a struggling independent County. Now Toby’s on the scene, it’s up to her to find out who’s behind the murders before the situation gets substantially worse.

With a steadily mounting body count and a closed circle of suspects, A Local Habitation is in some senses as classical a murder mystery as it gets. Its structuring principle, like that of all murder mystery, is about restoring order by closing down violent, irrational tendencies within the County of Tamed Lightning. McGuire adapts this template to the speculative genre she’s writing in by making those irrational tendencies quintessentially Gothic ones: her murderers are a changeling succumbing to the madness that threatens everyone with half-human, half-fae blood, and a kind of fae cyborg, a dryad whose consciousness was transferred into Tamed Lightning’s mainframe when her tree was cut down. These two Gothic figures are working on a scheme to upload fae minds and thereby preserve fae culture against the encroachment of humanity and the disenchantment of the world – that is, to create a ghostly, Gothic simulacrum of Faerie.

How does the murder mystery structure work to close down the anxieties induced by these figures – anxieties around madness and the threat that technology poses to personhood? This is where it gets interesting. Gordan, the changeling, may end the novel dead; her obsessive, single-minded focus on her goal is no longer a threat. But the spectre of her madness still troubles the novel’s world: Toby is a changeling too, and Gordan’s actions put her under suspicion. The way McGuire handles technology in the context of Faerie is also fascinating: it’s not Gordan’s plot itself that’s dangerous, but the fact that she’s willing to kill people to perfect the technology. Her accomplice, April, revealed as a sympathetic character who didn’t realise the people Gordan was killing couldn’t be rebooted, is reinscribed into the social order at the end of the novel by becoming Countess of Tamed Lightning – presumably free to continue Gordan’s work in a less homicidal manner. The threat of technology, unlike the threat of madness, is tamed here, brought into Faerie’s service.

It’s a shame that this doesn’t look set to be further examined in later books: I feel like there’s a lot of potential to be exploited in the tension between technology and magic (which is only an extension of the tension that powers all urban fantasy) and the paradox inherent in using human technology to combat problems caused by humans, and McGuire only really touches on this tension in A Local Habitation. It is, nevertheless, well-handled here: one of the things that elevates the Toby Daye series above most urban fantasy is the relative complexity of McGuire’s constructed world, the way she takes existing mythology and spins it into something both unexpected and completely consistent with her sources. Having fae who are comfortable with technology – comfortable enough to merge with it – feels counterintuitive, paradoxical; but it demonstrates a measure of flexibility and diversity among the fae as a whole that accounts for their survival into the modern age, in McGuire’s mythos. That I’d like to see a little more of this intersection between technology and magic isn’t a bad thing – it’s just an indication of how well it works here.

Review: The Unspoken Name

The Unspoken NameA.K. Larkwood’s debut novel The Unspoken Name has gained some moderate attention in genre circles this year, despite reviews that tend towards the mixed: Larkwood’s up for the Astounding Award for Best New Writer, and her novel seems to have had a fair publicity effort behind it. It’s being talked about, is what I’m saying. What’s interesting is that nobody seems to be talking about it as YA, when it shares a lot of DNA – in terms of theme and approach – with novels like Kristin Cashore’s undoubtedly YA Graceling series.

Our teenage protagonist, Csorwe, has lived all her life knowing when it will end: on her fourteenth birthday, when she’ll be sent to the sanctuary of the Unspoken God, to die as his Chosen Bride. However, on the very threshold of his sanctuary, she’s offered a way out: to become an apprentice to the wizard Belthandros Sethennai, and to help him find the Reliquary of Pentravesse, an object of great power that he’s been hunting for a while.

This opening sets us up to expect a certain type of novel: a straightforward quest narrative, perhaps, with large but surmountable obstacles along the way, and a clear character arc that sees Csorwe come into her own. But part of what Larkwood’s doing here is about undercutting such expectations; and instead of a traditional, coherent quest structure, we get something that’s much more episodic and bitty. The narrative makes years-long time jumps into Csorwe’s future, moves from setting to setting just when we’ve started getting comfortable; if this stop-start structure didn’t so neatly underscore Csorwe’s actual character journey, about which more in a minute, I’d say Larkwood was having trouble knowing where to start her novel, as many novice writers do. But our narrative expectations are undermined in other ways too. The Reliquary of Pentravesse turns out to be a bit of a red herring, in terms of what the narrative’s actually interested in; Belthandros Sethennai is no kindly Gandalf, but instead a self-involved and somewhat manipulative employer.

This narrative hesitancy – the way it starts down paths that then prove to be red herrings – is why I’m tempted to read the novel as YA: it mirrors Csorwe’s own stops and starts as she tries to figure out who she is, independent of the various adults in her life trying to mould her into a specific image – the submissive sacrificial bride of the Unspoken God; the brutal, efficient mercenary Sethennai would like her to be. The novel as a whole, then, speaks to typical YA concerns about how to function in society independently of what your parents (or parental figures) want for you; how to define yourself in the face of perhaps-oppressive social expectations. I mentioned Kristin Cashore’s Graceling novels above: in The Unspoken Name Larkwood seems to be interested in similar themes of overcoming specifically generational trauma – the kind of trauma you might experience if you were expected to die submissively at fourteen – and of working through the realisation that the conditions you were raised in were abusive and dysfunctional.

It’s relevant here that The Unspoken Name is an unapologetically queer book: Csorwe is a lesbian, and most of the characters fall somewhere under the LGBTQIA+ umbrella. Although this queerness is in Larkwood’s world unremarkable (this is no tale of queer tragedy), I’d say it absolutely adds a new dimension to Csorwe’s journey. Many, many queer people must as they grow up come to terms with unsupportive or downright abusive families of origin, and have to discover who they are on their own, building new found families that better reflect who they want to be and how they want to relate to the world. The Unspoken Name is not about queerness, but it reflects queer concerns in a relatable way that ties into the book’s larger themes of self-discovery and self-invention.

So: is The Unspoken Name YA, then? Lots of novels do examine the process of growing up and coming into oneself without necessarily being “for” the young people going through that process – James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is the classic example, but Guy Gavriel Kay’s Children of Earth and Sky, which I reviewed here last week, also works. These are texts that look at their protagonists’ coming-of-age from a perspective that is not strongly rooted in the teenage experience. Kay’s novel, for instance, has an omniscient narrator who frequently looks into his characters’ future, giving glimpses of how their present choices shape their lives in a way that’s at odds with YA’s emphasis on self-determination. By comparison, the voice of Larkwood’s novel is much closer to Csorwe’s own voice, so we experience her journey of self-discovery along with her. By the same token, though, The Unspoken Name doesn’t offer the kind of hyper-focus on a teenage protagonist that we tend to get in YA. As the Bandersnatch helpfully pointed out, speculative YA novels tend to have broad-brush, recognisable settings without too much sociopolitical complexity – think of the generic medieval fantasy setting of Cashore’s books, of Suzanne Collins’ high-concept, authoritarian Panem, of the high school analogue in PC and Kristin Cast’s Marked. That’s not automatically a bad thing: this broad-brush worldbuilding allows the author really to focus on their protagonist’s struggles without needing to explain what’s going on in the background. Whereas the setting of Larkwood’s novel is one of the things that’s slightly (deliberately) wrong-footing about it: its combination of inter-dimensional travel technology and D&D paladin-style magic insouciantly blends science fiction and fantasy, offering a little resistance to the reader expecting a straightforward romp through a recognisable world. That resistance takes the focus slightly off Csorwe, making us aware of her wider context in a way that YA isn’t always interested in.

It’s possible that this slight resistance is a factor in why The Unspoken Name isn’t being read as YA, despite its distinctively young adult features. Marketing, too, will be playing a huge part in how the novel’s being received: that cover, for instance, says “edgy grimdark fantasy”, not “affirming queer coming of age”. (Of course, if we wanted to be really facetious, we could point out that, since YA is primarily a marketing category, anything that’s not marketed as YA is de facto not YA. But that doesn’t get us very far, so.) On the whole I think this is a shame: I can imagine a young queer teen really enjoying The Unspoken Name, and getting a lot out of it, and a book missing a portion of its audience because of a commercial decision is never ideal. If The Unspoken Name isn’t technically YA, it’s certainly at least YA-adjacent, and a number of the flaws that reviewers have pointed out make a lot more sense in that context. Wherever we choose to place it generically, it’s a promising first novel that’s attempting some interesting things and largely succeeding; it’ll be good to see what Larkwood does next.