Thoughts on Granta 149: Europe: Strangers in the Land

Granta 149For post-Brexit British liberals living in an increasingly authoritarian state, it’s easy to romanticise the idea of Europe as a utopia of tolerance, progress and international cooperation. Published in 2019, in a year when the UK and the EU remained entrenched in seemingly interminable rows about the terms of Britain’s exit from the bloc, Granta 149 shows up the cracks in that utopia.

Much of the anthology – which contains fiction, essays and poetry, as well as a photo essay – covers depressingly familiar ground: the resounding aftereffects of the two world wars, and especially the Holocaust; modern anti-immigrant sentiment and policy across the continent; the effects of European colonialism and economic imperialism.

Highlights for me included an essay on the interaction of the Swedish asylum process with trauma, and the way in which help is thus denied to the most vulnerable; a piece on depictions of Saint Benedict the Moor in Sicily; and the aforesaid photo essay, which consists of images of temporary refugee housing without their inhabitants, drawing out the contingent nature of the concept of home.

I don’t think I’m ever going to be a regular reader of Granta, but I found this a thought-provoking and worthwhile read.

Review: The Lost Future of Pepperharrow

This review contains spoilers.

The Lost Future of PepperharrowIt’s 1888. Russian ships are squaring up to the Japanese navy, and Great Britain is contemplating whether to intervene. Against this alt-historical backdrop, clairvoyant and Japanese nobleman Mori, his lover Thaniel (a translator for the British Foreign Office) and their adopted daughter Six travel to Tokyo to investigate reports of ghosts appearing in the British consulate there.

Natasha Pulley’s The Lost Future of Pepperharrow is the sequel to her well-received The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, which, in the interests of full transparency, I should mention I have not read (although it exists in my house and I expect I will get round to reading it at some point). As I was gathering my thoughts on what I wanted to say about it, I stumbled upon this essay about the novel’s titular character, Takika Pepperharrow – technically Mori’s wife (theirs being a marriage of convenience) and something of an antagonist throughout the novel. The writer argues that the novel fails Pepperharrow by having her long and complex history with Mori conclude in an act of self-sacrifice that benefits both him and Thaniel; that, in other words, Pulley kills off a nuanced female character in service to the narrative arcs of two male ones.

It’s hard to argue with this conclusion. Well, in fact it’s impossible: that is precisely what happens in The Lost Future of Pepperharrow. And, look, gender is something I’m very interested in as a reader: I’ve deliberately stopped engaging with litfic novels that treat female characters with contempt; I track the number of books I read by female and non-binary authors. And yet, this wasn’t an aspect of the narrative that particularly stuck out to me, and I’m interested in why that is.

Partly, I suspect, it’s because its representation of other groups traditionally marginalised by Western literary culture is interesting and thoughtful. Thaniel and Mori are a gay couple in a historical period that is generally depicted as being hostile to queer relationships (Pulley portrays homosexuality as being marginally more acceptable in Meiji-era Japan than in Victorian England; I have no idea whether that’s an accurate portrayal); Six is clearly autistic, again in a context where the concept of neurodiversity does not really exist. As Pulley explains in an afterword, the speech of her Japanese characters is rendered in informal English in a bid to represent the formality registers they’re using in their own language. (Whether or not this is a successful or a desirable approach is debatable – I’ve talked before about the importance of not representing the past as simply a reskinned version of the present – but it’s clearly been thought about, and that’s something I can respect.) And it’s also good to see a steampunk story set in a non-Western country that it doesn’t attempt to exoticise.

There’s something lulling, as well, about Pulley’s prose, which is plangent, straightforward and clear; the sort of prose that tells you, in a wistful “what are we going to do about humanity” sort of way, exactly what to think about the events of the story:

… it was just as dangerous to teach a little girl that one foot wrong would mean a lunatic and a dungeon. It made it sound inevitable, whereas if you were brought up safe in the knowledge that people were supposed to be good, you approached the bad ones with a healthy fury that might just see you out of the dungeon.

Finally, the quality of Mori and Thaniel’s relationship makes the novel faintly addictive: although they’re both adults, their inability to communicate their feelings for each other for fear of rejection feels much more YA. Thus Thaniel spends much of the novel convinced that Mori doesn’t love him and just keeps him around because he’s entertaining (?); by the end, we discover that Mori is similarly convinced that Thaniel has been staying with him because he gets a free room out of the arrangement. It’s a little eyeroll-y written down like that, but the romantic tension generated by this set-up acts as an effective hook: certainly I was convinced that Thaniel was mistaken and desperate for him to realise it.

My point here is that the many sweet and charming things I found in The Lost Future of Pepperharrow for me outweighed the undoubtedly problematic way in which it treats its titular character. That’s partly for reasons of textual technique – the accessible prose, the rom-com love story – but it’s also partly because of my own preferences and interests as a reader (I’m marginally more interested in LGBT+ rep than in female rep at this point in time). I mean; this is quite obvious; we are all postmodernists now. But it’s interesting nonetheless, to interrogate what makes my reading of a particular text different to someone else’s, and to think about why that might be.

I don’t, however, want to over-egg how much I enjoyed The Lost Future of Pepperharrow: ultimately, for me, its sweetness made it too easy and unchallenging a read. I liked it while I was reading it; I appreciated its setting and its treatment of marginalised identities; but it’s not a novel I think about very much. It was fine. Your reading may vary.

Review: Thin Air

Thin AirBritish speculative fiction author Richard Morgan’s latest novel Thin Air demonstrates science fiction’s colonialist roots as well as anything I’ve read recently. Set on an imperfectly-terraformed Mars, it follows one Hakan Veil, a former overrider (a genetically enhanced human created to act as security on corporate-owned spaceships) who’s blackmailed into bodyguarding a high-status visitor from Earth. The visitor is Madison Madekwe, an auditor for the Colonial Oversight Initiative who’s investigating the mysterious death of the winner of a lottery offering Martians a once-in-a-lifetime ticket to Earth. Inevitably, Hakan finds himself collaborating in the investigation, diving into the murky, corrupt underbelly of corporate scheming that passes for Martian politics.

So the key dynamic powering the novel is the uneasy relationship between Mars and Earth: the Martian colonists both despise Earth’s bureaucrats and see Earth as an unreachable, far-off vision of home. Morgan’s Mars is a bit Wild West and a lot Victorian colony: originally a penal settlement, its inhabitants are still, 200 years later, barely subsisting on the barren red planet, ruled over by a corrupt local governor, with Earth hopelessly distant in terms both of travel time and of what it would cost financially to get there. The corporation stuff tracks too, European colonialism historically being based on trade (think of the East India Company, which essentially ruled the subcontinent until the mid-nineteenth century).

What’s missing, of course, are the main victims of historical colonialism: Morgan’s Mars has no indigenous inhabitants to be slaughtered and oppressed by exploitative Earthlings. In fact racism appears to be largely absent from this imagined future: the well-off Earth auditor Madison is Black, whereas Martian Hakan has Arabic ancestry. Morgan’s point seems to be that the forces of capital depend on the existence of an underclass, and that therefore the social conditions that enabled imperialism will continue to operate in colonialist-like ways even when the problem of racism has been solved. (Although the extent to which it has in fact been solved in the universe of Thin Air is dubious: as in Martha Wells’ Network Effect, which I reviewed last week, the novel’s worldbuilding is thoroughly Western despite the characters’ different cultural backgrounds.)

This argument would, I feel, be more convincing if there was actually anything on Mars for Morgan’s fictional corporations to be interested in, but there isn’t, particularly: no significant resource extraction, no desirable markets; the only commercial activity that is uniquely Martian is, for some reason that I don’t think is ever adequately explained, skincare development. Furthermore, Morgan’s Martians are analogous not to the relentlessly exploited indigenous populations of lands colonised by Europeans but to the colonisers themselves: the convicts shipped out to places like Australia and North America to establish a Western presence there. Of course it’s difficult to describe a transported Victorian peasant as privileged, but the comparison I think Morgan is reaching for here doesn’t quite work, and moreover obscures the actual harms capitalist colonialism did, and is still doing, to real communities across the globe.

This is a shame, because the attempted critique of capitalism is what elevates the novel above others in its genre; without it, it’s merely violent, male gaze-y and, on one jarring occasion close to the beginning, randomly transphobic. Like, I don’t want to imply that I hated reading it: I quite enjoyed what it was attempting to do, as well as Morgan’s prose, which is stylish in a sort of sub-Rajaniemi way, noirish and efficient. But it wasn’t an entirely pleasant reading experience, let’s just say, or an entirely successful one.

Review: Network Effect

Network EffectMartha Wells’ moment in SFF continues in Network Effect, a Murderbot story that was named Best Novel at the Hugos in December, beating out two genre heavyweights in N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became and Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi. In this fifth entry in the series (and the first at novel length), Murderbot, a security cyborg that has hacked the governor module supposedly keeping it in line and uses its freedom to watch endless soap opera episodes, accompanies its human friend Dr Mensah on a surveying mission that quickly and predictably goes very wrong. Murderbot, along with Dr Mensah’s daughter Amena, is captured and finds itself aboard a familiar spaceship (ART, or Asshole Research Transport, who we met in Artificial Condition) – but while it’s physically unharmed, ART’s personality is gone, and it’s being piloted by mysterious, possibly alien, figures who are apparently up to no good. Can Murderbot restore Amena to her mother and bring back ART? And can it do so without having any awkward conversations about feelings?

I’ve talked before about why I think the Murderbot series has seen such remarkable success recently: its protagonist is, as I wrote in my review of the first Murderbot novella, All Systems Red, a “massive queer nerd”, asexual, agender and obsessed with its favourite media in a way that reads as fannish. Having read Network Effect: yeah, I still think that’s basically correct. There are a lot of queer nerds voting for the Hugos at the moment, and this is a book pretty much designed to appeal to that demographic. Additionally, throughout the series Wells is taking on other themes that are highly relevant to the field right now: many of her human characters are Black or brown, queerness and polyamory are common and expected, capitalism is shitty and corrupt and exploitative. As well as being ace and agender, Murderbot also has compelling neurodivergent resonances: its dislike of conversations about feelings and its discomfort in social situations reads as specifically autistic. With the push for better representation of marginalised identities in speculative fiction, and general discontent with capitalism and the lingering harms of imperialism, becoming mainstream, it’s not difficult to see how well the Murderbot series is tapping into the zeitgeist.

Combine that with a relatively straightforward plot (Murderbot and its human companions get into trouble, then get out again) and character arc (Murderbot, like many many of its fictional robotic predecessors, learns the meaning of friendship and experiences Emotional Growth), plus a sarky, readable narrative voice and Wells’ carefully textured worldbuilding (she’s particularly good on work, something I don’t see represented enough in SFF) and you get something very moreish indeed. It may not be groundbreaking – though it features Black and brown characters, its worldbuilding is thoroughly Western – but it’s deeply enjoyable, and I’d be happy to read more.

Review: The Golden House

TW: transphobia.

Transphobic, ableist and a little bit sexist, Salman Rushdie’s fable of familial dysfunction The Golden House is the perfect encapsulation of everything I find wearisome about the Great Male Novelist. When Nero Golden flees from India to New York with his three children – autistic Petra, artistic Apu and genderqueer D – their new neighbour, an ambitious filmmaker named Rene, begins planning a mockumentary based on the family’s dramas and their mysterious past.

Rushdie’s treatment of autism and of transness is deeply problematic: agoraphobic Petya is presented as abject and pitiable, while D, having found their way into New York’s queer scene, becomes confused about their gender identity by their well-meaning girlfriend and ends up dead. Both autism and transness are presented as curses of sorts, their presence in the Golden family an indication of decadence, of corruption, of the family’s ultimate downfall. Rushdie’s discussion of gender in particular seems borne out of a desire to Comment on this Important Topic rather than a genuine interest in understanding the subject: his grumblings about identity politics have the tone and sentiment of something your Sun-reading granddad might come out with. If Rushdie ever consulted – hell, even met – an actual trans person I would be very surprised.

There’s also a sexy Russian lady who marries Nero in order to get her hands on his fortune which – I mean, it’s such a cliché at this point that it’s hardly worth commenting on.

That so many people seem entranced by this novel – writing for the Guardian, Aminatta Forna tells us of Rushdie’s “considerable courage” in tackling gender identity – is surely an indictment of our Great Man-obsessed cultural landscape: of course nothing that a leading novelist like Rushdie says can be wrong, or underthought, or unoriginal, amirite? Meanwhile, new writers, trans writers, women writers, writers who can actually speak to the spirit of the age are shut out by an increasingly conservative publishing industry motivated primarily by profit. The Golden House is my first Rushdie, and it’ll be my last too: I’m off to read something more relevant.

Thoughts on Tomahawk Theatre’s “Twelfth Night”

A few scattered notes on Tomahawk Theatre’s Twelfth Night, which ran in the courtyard of Oxford Castle for two weeks in July 2021. On the whole it was a competent but unremarkable production, softened and made romantic by the glow of sunset on old stone.

  • Costume choices were generally steampunk/Victorian-lite, which, while aesthetically rather fun, is probably the least interesting choice available: it removes what can be a fanciful play even further from relevance and into the realm of escapist fantasy. Also: I think every version of Twelfth Night I have seen has struggled to handle Malvolio’s “yellow stockings cross-gartered”, a period-specific fashion that rarely meshes well with modern costume styles. How do you update that to something a modern audience understands?

  • The music direction was…not great. This was firstly a question of singing ability – the actor playing Feste was somewhat lacking in this area – and secondly a question of pacing: the songs were too long and I don’t feel like the director had a clear vision of what they were there for.

  • On a personal level I wish the production had made more of the queer possibilities of the text. While Tomahawk’s Orsino definitely had gay vibes they were played very much as accidental and eventually legitimised by the revelation that “Cesario” is a woman. I mean: that is what the text does: confuses gender categories and then resolves them again to restore the social order; but I wish the production had questioned the neatness of that ending a little more.

  • Generally I feel like the production didn’t have much to say about the original text: all the choices it made were fairly obvious ones. The actors’ performances were on the whole good, but there wasn’t much to get hold of thematically. Don’t get me wrong: it was a pleasant evening; just not a memorable one.

2021 Roundup

Another weird year in reading, this one: with the libraries closed again until April, a good third of the books I read this year were re-reads. Re-reading is a pleasure of its own, of course, but what it doesn’t bring is the shock of the new, the brilliant surprise of discovering something you didn’t know existed. As a result, I found it difficult this year even to identify ten new-to-me books that I thought were top-tier favourites; normally I’m whittling down a list of about fifteen.

Here they are, anyway: my top ten reads of 2021; and, afterwards, some spreadsheet stats.

Top Ten Books of 2021

  1. Utopia Avenue – David Mitchell (2020). This mostly-realist tale of a fictional 60s band has some misfires – most notably its somewhat schlocky speculative element – but its characters are so vivid, so humanly flawed, that you can’t help but love it. Dean, Griff, Elf, Jasper and Levon all – still! – feel like friends of my heart; this is a truly warm and wonderful novel.
  2. Hild – Nicola Griffith (2014). It took me twelve days to read this 550-page novel, and I’m a fast reader. Part of what makes it a slow read is its almost speculative treatment of its seventh-century setting: it plunges the modern reader into a very alien cultural and social milieu, asking us to keep up with political divisions and developments that we know almost nothing about, using unfamiliar terms that it doesn’t stop to explain. And part of it is that Hild herself gains power in a hostile society by observing, quietly, the movements and currents of the world around her. It made me want to do the same: to pay attention; to read slowly and carefully and thoughtfully. One of those rare books that changes your worldview as you read.
  3. The Water DancerTa-Nehisi Coates (2019). Another novel that applies speculative techniques to the stuff of realism; in this case, Virginian slavery. I loved Coates’ lyrical, supple prose, and his use of fantasy to point up the ways in which his enslaved characters are estranged from their own history. For me, it’s a novel that achieved what Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad did not.
  4. Possession – A.S. Byatt (1990). I was never not going to like this layered, brilliant tale of academic discovery and forbidden romance. It just works on so many levels: the tone-perfect pastiche of Victorian poetry; the exploration of intellectual and romantic possession; the complex, fraught relationships it charts between its various pairs of lovers. A novel to curl up into and to savour.
  5. Unconquerable Sun – Kate Elliott (2020). This take on “Alexander the Great in space” is just really solid, enjoyable SF. The worldbuilding has texture and substance; the text resists easy moralities; queerness is an expected and unremarkable aspect of its fictional society. Deeply satisfying.
  6. Shriek: An Afterword Jeff Vandermeer (2006). I didn’t know much about Shriek before I started reading it, and I found it absolutely fascinating. The fictional city of Ambergris is underlain by a fungoid society that is terrifying in its absolute illegibility. There are shades of China Mieville here, but Vandermeer’s work is more personal, more focused on its twin protagonists, and so that sense of the abcanny, and the threat of it, is magnified. I’m excited to read more about Ambergris.
  7. The Unreal and the Real Volume 2: Outer Space, Inner Lands – Ursula K. le Guin (2012). I read this collection of short stories in a day, travelling, an immersion that never became wearing. So many of these stories are linked, drawn from le Guin’s Hainish Cycle (although a few stand on their own, and one of them is set in the Earthsea universe), but they all explore very different ways of being and living. I don’t think I’d ever quite realised how transformative le Guin’s work is before: the collection made me think of le Guin’s quote about how capitalism feels as inescapable as the divine right of kings once did, and it really bears out that optimism, that idea that it might be possible to imagine a new kind of society into existence.
  8. Hot HeadSimon Ings (1992). My last read of 2021, this was another one that came as a pleasant surprise. Set in a cyberpunk future in which the Singularity is about to be invented, it’s deeply engaged with questions of identity, of storymaking and of cultural cohesion. Despite its early 90s publication date, it also features a Muslim protagonist and multiple queer characters. Like many debut novels, it’s a little uneven, but there are some interesting ideas here.
  9. Infidel – Kameron Hurley (2011). I’ve been looking for this novel in libraries and bookshops for literal years; what a pleasure finally to find it! Hurley’s later work doesn’t appeal to me, but the terse, punchy prose and apocalyptic desertscapes of her Bel Dame trilogy really do. Another SF novel that’s just – fun.
  10. Hamnet – Maggie O’Farrell (2020). A novel about the family that Shakespeare left at home in Stratford as he achieved fame and fortune in London, Hamnet is another litfic work that’s also a little bit speculative. In this case, the speculative elements are there to immerse us in a worldview very different from the modern one; a worldview that contained the supernatural, the otherworldly, as accepted fact. It’s a technique I’ve always enjoyed; and I also like O’Farrell’s close attention to domestic life in this time period, the textures and smells of 16th-century England.

Spreadsheet stats

  • I read 89 books in 2021; much less than last year’s anomalous 121.
  • The longest book I read was my mammoth collected edition of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast Trilogy, at 953 pages; the shortest was Thomas Pynchon’s snappy The Crying of Lot 49, at just 125. Both were re-reads. In all I read 35,787 pages in 2021, significantly down from last year’s whopping 41,837.
  • The oldest book I read in 2021 was Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, another re-read and first published in 1813. The average age of the books I read in 2021 was 19, up from last year’s 12.
  • Genre: 43% of the books I read in 2021 were fantasy, down from 45% last year. Just 19% were science fiction, down from 26% last year. In fact, for the first time since I started recording my reading in 2014, I read more litfic than SF this year: 22% (last year only 8% of the books I read were litfic). The remaining 16% consists of four historical novels, four classics, three non-fiction books, two contemporaries, a Granta anthology and a book of poetry (Catherynne M. Valente’s A Guide to Folktales in Fragile Dialects).
  • As I mentioned earlier, almost a third of the books I read in 2021 were re-reads: 29%, considerably up from last year’s 9%.
  • 60% of the books I read in 2021 were by women and non-binary people – the same as in 2020.
  • 19% of the books I read in 2021 were by people of colour – slightly up from last year’s 18%.
  • And 19% of the books I read in 2021 were by queer authors – up from last year’s 15%.

Review: The Poppy War

The Poppy WarWhat kind of a role should physical and military violence play in fiction? It’s a question I’ve been grappling with in my reading and writing the last couple of years as conversations about colonialism, imperialism and structural oppression move further into the SFF mainstream. Where is the line between what’s justified in order to tell the truth and what’s gratuitous and exploitative? When and how should one write about rape, about genocide, about graphic murder and torture?

R.F. Kuang’s 2018 debut The Poppy War features all of these things, and more besides. Inspired by Chinese history both recent and ancient, it follows protagonist Rin, a poor orphan who beats the odds – not to mention endemic classism – to test into the elite military training academy Sinegard. Her country, the Nikara Empire, is at war with the neighbouring Japan-analogue Mugen Federation for historical reasons, and when Mugen invades Nikara Rin and her classmates are called up to defend it. Rin, however, is assigned not to a regular fighting regiment but to a division of shamans called the Cike, thanks to her ability to call upon the power of a bloodthirsty god called the Phoenix – an ability she shares with a group of people called the Speerlies, powerful warriors massacred by Mugenese forces in an earlier conflict.

The Poppy War is, as I’ve indicated, a violent novel, depicting the full horror of everything humans do to each other in war in fairly graphic detail. In particular, Mugenese atrocities such as the genocide of the Speerlies are used by Rin and her compatriots to justify their own ugly tactics, and to dehumanise the Mugenese forces. This process culminates in Rin calling on the power of the Phoenix to murder hundreds of thousands of people, mostly civilians, in retaliation for the destruction of Nikara cities. During the course of the novel we also see Mugenese doctors experimenting on Nikara troops, Cike commanders imprisoning rogue shamans, and carriage drivers killing injured children. It’s frankly a lot: there is, it seems, no form of violence that Kuang will shrink from depicting.

And yet its effect in the text is strangely muted – especially given the fact that much of what Kuang writes about is based on real events. In this interview for BookRiot, Kuang talks about her interest in “how people become murderers or perpetrators of genocide”, but her character work in The Poppy War is neither particularly convincing nor especially revealing: Rin could be the heroine of any grimdark fantasy for all the originality of her motives. There is, too, relatively little nuance in the way she depicts military violence and its effects: where is the Mugenese viewpoint, or, more importantly, the civilian viewpoint on either side? This latter for me cuts to the core of what makes depictions of extreme violence effective (and to some extent ethical) in fiction: it needs to be set off by something that is positive or peaceful or hopeful, even if the overall tone of the text is bleak. I don’t think Kuang achieves that here.

None of this is to say that Kuang is gratuitous in her use of violence: we find each atrocity and war crime deeply horrifying; they’re not there merely to titillate or to shock, as they are in texts like A Game of Thrones and its successors. But, by the same token, I think the novel’s lack of nuance prevents it from delivering the gut-punch that it should. The Poppy War is attempting something interesting and important with Chinese history; I’m not sure that it entirely succeeds.

Review: How to Be Famous

How to Be FamousDolly Wilde, the heroine of Times columnist Caitlin Moran’s third novel How to Be Famous, is an alter ego twice over. Firstly, and most overtly, she’s the drinking, partying, devil-may-care persona of teen music journalist Johanna Morrigan, who in Moran’s earlier novel How to Build a Girl moved from depressed Wolverhampton to London in search of fame and fortune. In How to Be Famous, Johanna/Dolly, now well-established in the music scene, befriends a fierce feminist singer named Suzanne, attempts to deal with the fact that her father is spending much of his time stoned in her London flat, and faces some good old-fashioned 90s chauvinism when a jilted comedian releases a sex tape in an act of revenge.

Less obviously – but not much less obviously – Dolly is also a stand-in for Moran herself. Like Johanna, Moran grew up on benefits in Wolverhampton and left for London to pursue a career in music journalism at the age of 18. She claims, nevertheless, that How to Build a Girl and How to Be Famous are not autobiographical – a claim that might be more convincing if Johanna’s voice were not so relentlessly polemical. How to Be Famous does have some trenchant (if not particularly original) things to say about feminism, but the way that it says them is declamatory and didactic: there are whole passages (including a series of articles Dolly writes about teenage fannishness) that could come straight from one of Moran’s columns.

It has to be said that this isn’t wholly aesthetically ineffective: Moran’s a well-paid writer for a reason, and her prose is rhetorically well-structured, with a strong ear for rhythm and sound. Too, Johanna is an attractively adventurous character, her fanciful gothpunk facade concealing highly relatable feelings of insecurity and anxiety. But nowhere is it subtle; and even in her insecurity Johanna is somehow too easy a character, a stereotypical Heroine Facing the Forces of Misogyny. How to Be Famous is a fun enough read, but as a study of sexism historical and contemporary it doesn’t quite satisfy: I’d like more nuance, more care and, most pressingly, more intersectionality.

Review: The Traitor

The TraitorSeth Dickinson’s debut novel The Traitor (published in the US under the much more recognisable title The Traitor Baru Cormorant) received rapturous praise on its release in 2015 for its portrayal of the corrosive effects of empire on the colonised, and continues to be discussed in genre circles as something of a revelation in post-colonial fantasy.

The titular Baru is a child living with her mother and two fathers on the tropical island of Taranoke when the Masquerade, a colonial power that already controls vast swathes of the world, moves in. Over the next few years, Baru, now moved into a Masquerade residential school where she and her fellow Taranoki pupils are taught homophobic doctrines about “hygiene” (read: straight monogamy), sees the economy and culture of her home eroded by Masquerade trading practices and ideological indoctrination; the last straw is when one of her fathers, Salm, disappears after a traditional battle, presumably murdered by Masquerade agents for his polyamory. Swearing revenge against the Masquerade, Baru takes a position as a high-up civil servant for the empire in the wintry land of Aurdwynn, a patchwork of duchies only recently unified under imperial rule, and still rebellious. The novel broadly charts her attempts to wrangle local politics and play the Masquerade at their own game, concealing her true intentions behind layers of misdirection and seduction.

Although The Traitor is written in the third person, it hews very closely to Baru’s perspective, keeping us at a distance from Aurdwynn and its inhabitants in the same way that Baru holds herself aloof from them, figuring out how best she can use them to consolidate her position or advance her aims. This in itself is, as Phoebe Salzman-Cohen points out here, a reflection of how the Masquerade sees the nations and cultures it overruns: as resources to be used in whatever way seems politically expedient.

While it’s an effective textual strategy, it’s not a particularly groundbreaking one. No, what really drive Dickinson’s critique of colonialism home is how unflinching his novel is. In Aurdwynn, there is nowhere for Baru to turn: no kind ally, no canny manipulator with a heart of gold, no disinterested actor. Even her secretary is a possible threat. And Baru herself is very far from straightforwardly sympathetic. She is, as the novel’s title suggests, a traitor many times over. She is utterly ruthless; everything, with her, is about the long game, and about revenge. In her single-minded determination to burn down the world she actually reminds me of Essun, the protagonist of N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, which was published the same year as The Traitor. Jemisin and Dickinson have similar artistic goals, I think: both are writing about systems and structures that are so rotten, so sick, that it is impossible for them to produce anything good. And they’re both interested specifically in the effects of those structures on those that are oppressed by them – the ways in which they leave the oppressed with no good choices. These novels are grim not because grimdarkery is trendy, but because there is no other way to talk honestly about colonialism, imperialism and racism.

The Traitor‘s ending, twistily devastating as it is, is both a fitting conclusion to Baru’s adventure in Aurdwynn and a terrible promise of greater revenge to come. The titles of the two sequels to this novel, The Monster and The Tyrant, gesture at the heights to which Baru’s rage will take her. I for one can’t wait to read about them.