Review: The Historian

Not everyone who reaches back into history can survive it. And…sometimes history itself reaches inexorably forward for us with its shadowy claw.

This passage, which opens Elizabeth Kostova’s bestselling Dracula reworking The Historian, both refers to the novel’s functionally immortal villain, the elusive Vlad Tepes, and expresses the book’s mThe Historianain thematic concern: the haunting effects that history has upon the present, the ways in which the past remains alive and well, trapping people in old patterns.

When, at the age of 16, the narrator of the novel discovers in her father Paul’s library a strange old book containing a woodcut of a dragon, alongside a mysterious and ominous letter, she convinces him, gradually, reluctantly, to tell her its story: of his brilliant doctoral supervisor Rossi, who disappeared shortly after telling Paul of his suspicions that the historical Dracula was real and alive; of Paul’s quest with Rossi’s daughter Helen to find him, tracing Dracula through the libraries and monasteries of Eastern Europe; of Paul’s romance with Helen, and her own disappearance.

Ostensibly a literary treasure hunt enacted by ivory-tower academics, the novel is in fact strongly informed by Cold War politics and by the centuries of cultural and religious conflict that have shaped Eastern Europe in particular. Vlad Tepes, the fifteenth-century ruler of Wallachia who later became identified with Stoker’s suave vampire Dracula, was a staunch and often brutal opponent of the Ottomans: that enmity proves a vital source for Paul and Helen as they attempt to track down Vlad’s (and thus Rossi’s) whereabouts, referring to monkish accounts of Vlad’s supposed corpse’s progress through Eastern Europe and gaining the assistance of a secret society of Turkish academics who claim legitimacy in their opposition to Vlad/Dracula from the long-dead Sultan Mehmet himself. This historical religious conflict is reflected – resurrected, we could say – in the hostility Helen and Paul face as they follow in Vlad’s footsteps through Bulgaria and Hungary. As an American in the 1950s, Paul can travel in Eastern Europe only because Helen’s aunt, high up in the Communist Hungarian government, has been able to pull some political strings; but the authorities are nevertheless suspicious of him and thus of Helen, and ultimately turn out to be pursuing Vlad/Dracula for their own ideological ends (in what is perhaps the novel’s least convincing subplot). Helen, too, finds herself at potential risk when the pair visit Istanbul, owing to her Hungarian heritage and the historical conflict between the two countries.

This sense of history’s patterns repeating is focused through the figure of Vlad himself. Unlike Stoker’s Dracula and most of his contemporary descendants, Kostova’s vampire is not particularly suave or seductive, not associated with forbidden desire, but brutal, beastly and utterly monstrous: Vlad Tepes’ historical atrocities (he was not called Vlad the Impaler for nothing) haunt the text; a vampiric librarian, servant to Vlad, who appears in the narrative early on is a “frail”, sobbing wreck, and the threat of infection from his bite is an ever-constant fear; the day after Rossi disappears, police find on the ceiling of his office a dark smear of blood, something it’s hard to imagine Stoker’s fastidious Dracula leaving behind.

Kostova’s Dracula figure, then, operates as a metaphor for the enduring power of sociopolitical conflict, for the bloody internecine battles of the past that refuse to die, casting their monstrous, undead shadows upon the present. Both Dracula and the 1950s politics the novel depicts haunt its narrator and her family in enduring ways: fear of vampiric infection has kept the narrator’s mother from her, in the same way that the invasion of Hungary by Soviet forces shortly after Paul’s visit to that country cuts Helen irrevocably off from her family there. By folding a typically Gothic family drama (featuring such genre staples as the missing mother, the wronged woman and the child seeking revenge against her parent) into her tale of political violence, Kostova’s able to illustrate the human costs of that violence, the way it redounds through the generations.

I would say, however, that the way that Kostova characterises particularly the Ottoman-Christian conflict that overshadows the novel is problematic: conceptually, the Ottoman/Turkish side is othered and orientalised, despite the help that Paul and Helen receive from the modern-day Turkish academics who oppose Dracula. Istanbul, for instance, is described as having “an Arabian Nights quality”; European influences in its architecture are called “borrowed elegance”; there’s an overall sense of foreignness, a drive towards conceptualising Istanbul as fundamentally different and exotic, that we don’t get in the descriptions of Europe or America. In a novel that mourns the families shattered by political conflict, this approach seems overly careless of the modern political divides it may be perpetuating.

Much has been said about the current vogue for rebooting and recycling classic properties and texts as a way of capitalising on audiences’ nostalgia, little of it complementary. And there is certainly a nostalgic, consolatory dimension to The Historian: its 700-page bulk promises immersion, the prospect of sinking into a comfortably suspenseful but never truly unsettling tale; its prose, as other critics have noted, fails to differentiate the novel’s various narrators, and prioritises aesthetics (as in the text’s orientalised Istanbul) above the true textures of life. For all its flaws, though, it is for my money doing something unusual and interesting with a much-imitated pop-cultural figure, drawing in Gothic concerns about the deep past, the return of the repressed and fraught structures of family inheritance to talk about our recent political history. The Gothic is a tricksy mode, and it’s more difficult than it might seem to do anything new with it; that Kostova has managed it is testament to her facility and familiarity with the genre.

Review: The City of Woven Streets

The City of Woven StreetsI haven’t read Emmi Itäranta’s debut novel Memory of Water, the English-language version of which was shortlisted for a slew of speculative fiction awards when it came out in 2014, but what I have heard of it seems to indicate that she’s dealing with similar themes in her sophomore effort, 2016’s The City of Woven Streets. Both novels are set in a dystopian society whose people are deprived of access to some basic human resource – water in the earlier novel, dreams in the later one – and both take a slightly allegorical approach to their subject matter. By the latter I mean that neither novel is strictly realistic in its worldbuilding, even taking into account the rules of their imagined settings; instead, they rely on metaphorical and emotional resonance to create meaning.

The City of Woven Streets, then, is the story of Eliana, a young woman who lives and works in the House of Weavers, on a remote and storm-washed island ruled over by the autocratic Council. Eliana has a dangerous secret: unlike her Weaver colleagues, she dreams. Should her secret be discovered, she’ll be whisked off to the House of the Tainted, never to be seen again. Her precarious position is complicated further when a woman named Valeria washes up in a storm, tongue cut out and with Eliana’s name written upon her hand. Eliana’s attempts to decipher her connection to Valeria, as she gradually falls in love with her, lead her to momentous truths about the island, the Council, and why nobody dreams.

The society in which Eliana lives is as much fantasy-medieval as it is anything else, albeit with a touch of steampunk: literacy rates are low, there’s little in the way of machinery or automation (save for the air gondolas that shuttle between the island’s various key buildings on cables), and women’s rights in particular are limited. Yet there’s a lot here that speaks to thoroughly contemporary concerns about environmental degradation and exploitation, in a way that directly connects these issues to the exploitation and oppression of indigenous peoples and the working classes. For instance, fairly early on in the novel, Eliana hears reports of masses of dead medusae – the jellyfish the people of the island use for pain relief – washing up on the shores; eventually, she discovers that the die-off was caused by a chemical that the Council uses to suppress dreaming in the island’s citizens. Later, Eliana is sent to the House of the Tainted herself, and finds out that the people imprisoned there are being used as forced labour to carry out the difficult and dangerous work of harvesting the red coral that is the island’s main export – and that the task is made more difficult and dangerous by the fact that the coral is becoming rarer and harder to reach as a direct result of this overexploitation of the sea’s resources. Finally, at the novel’s denouement, Eliana meets a sentient being below the House of the Weavers whose people were driven from the island by the Council and forgotten, and who possesses important knowledge about an impending cataclysm that’s about to strike the island – something that neither the Council nor the island’s human inhabitants know anything about.

It’s a novel, in short, that’s partly about the costs – environmental, social and economic – of treating both people and the environment as resources to be exploited for the benefit of a powerful elite. Itäranta’s transplantation of these concerns into a low-tech fantasy setting helps to bring them into sharp emotional contrast; shorn of the complexities of modern globalism, they can be seen more clearly, and confronted more directly. Her dreamy, flowing prose, verging on stream of consciousness in some places, contributes to this effect: it brings the tale into sharp emotional resonance, a resonance that more obviously “realistic” climate fiction (I’m thinking here of works like Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora) struggles to achieve.

This is something that surprisingly few speculative fiction novels are trying to do, actually – I can’t, offhand, think of any fantasy-inflected novels that are interested in environmental exploitation in a way that relates so closely to the real world (I suppose Kristin Cashore’s new novel Winterkeep does have environmental themes, but they feel secondary to the personal drama her characters are dealing with), and certainly none that take this fabulist, metaphorical approach to it. It’s quite an effective one here, the deceptively simple surface of the text concealing some sophisticated thinking about structural oppression, and it’s something I’d like to see more of.

Review: Trust Exercise

TW: child sexual abuse; rape.

Trust ExerciseFor something like half a millennium – ever since the rise of Protestantism and with it the doctrine that the way to God is through private study of the Bible – the English-speaking world has been obsessed with the idea that in the written word lies ultimate truth. As readers and as participants in any sort of public discourse, we’re conditioned to seek out an objective, overriding Truth, even when we’re reading novels with self-evidently unreliable narrators. Texts like Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, or Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, or Hanya Yanigihara’s The People in the Trees, whose narrators all conceal key facts from the reader in one way or another, nevertheless ask the reader to reconstruct an objective truth from these unreliable accounts; in fact their effectiveness depends on it. Susan Choi’s National Book Award-winning novel Trust Exercise completely confounds such reconstruction, and with it the comforting notion that there is such a thing as perfect, objective truth.

It begins conventionally enough, at a prestigious performing arts school in a generic American city, where two fourteen-year-olds, Sarah and David, have the hots for each other. Intense as their mutual crush is, it quickly turns sour, partly because they’re both at the age when any slight feels like a mjaor betrayal, and partly because of the emotional manipulation of their acting teacher, the charismatic, creepy and almost certainly paedophilic Mr Kingsley.

Enter the second section, however, and everything we understand about how Choi’s narrative is unfolding comes undone. The second section is narrated by Karen, a peripheral character from the first section, who reveals that the first section is a fiction, a novelisation of what really happened written by Sarah herself. Karen goes on to relate her version of events, which involves another unhappy teenage infatuation featuring another abusive teacher, Martin. The third and final section, which is very brief indeed, is set some decades after the first two sections, and involves a young woman, again subject to unwanted sexual advances, trying to piece together something of her history, which is seemingly linked to the experiences of Sarah and Karen. This third section fails intentionally to provide any form of resolution or closure, either for its young narrator (whose identity remains obscure) or for the reader.

The result is an enormously shifty text, one in which solid facts are all but impossible to pin down. Both Sarah and Karen, we sense, have altered their stories in the face of adolescent trauma, so they can better process what has happened to them; but by the same token neither of them are exactly lying. Their stories are true to them; and since there’s no way for us as observers to access the truth of “what really happened”, that truth effectively does not exist. All we have is a core emotional truth, about power, vulnerability and the shame that survivors of sexual abuse experience – a shame that’s transmitted down through generations and ultimately prevents the abuse from being named for what it is.

Trust Exercise‘s shiftiness made me think of rape trials and their abysmally low conviction rates. The entire apparatus of Western justice is set up to ascertain a single objective truth; to reconcile conflicting accounts and pieces of information in an attempt to find out “what really happened”. But – outside particularly extreme cases – what “objective” evidence is there for rape, beyond the survivor’s account? Everyone knows what rape is, but actually ascertaining, from the outside, whether it happened is a shifty and slippery business. For me, Trust Exercise demonstrates that we as a society need different ways to talk about, and deal with, rape and sexual abuse; ways that acknowledge the emotional trauma these crimes inflict on survivors, and how the demand for objective truth can itself be damaging. Postmodern theatrics such as those Choi deploys in this novel can feel empty and gimmicky, challenging traditional structures of meaning to no apparent purpose; here, Choi puts them to work to examine how conventional modes of reading and truthseeking reinforce abusive and uneven power structures.

Review: Bitterblue

BitterblueThe third novel in Kristin Cashore’s young adult Graceling series, Bitterblue is very like its predecessors in that it deals centrally with issues of abuse and coercive control. The eponymous Bitterblue is the daughter of the late King Leck of Monsea, a man who could control people’s minds and have them do his often megalomaniac bidding. As the new ruler of Monsea, and a victim of Leck’s cruelty in her own right, Bitterblue has to come to terms not only with what her father did to the country’s people, but also with her own power and privilege and the responsibilities they confer upon her. Her attempts to do so are complicated by her advisers, who all also suffered under Leck, and who are more interested in forgetting what he did to them, and made them do to others, than in confronting his crimes and providing restitution to Monsea’s people. Frustrated by their equivocation, Bitterblue decides to explore her capital city alone, dressed as a commoner, and meets a man called Sapphire with whom she strikes up a relationship of sorts. Saf tells her what life in the city is really like: the endemic illiteracy, the poor construction of many of its buildings, the people doing the work her government should be doing by illicitly returning the things Leck stole to their proper owners. How, given Leck’s past abuses, can Bitterblue do best by her people? And how can she repair the wrong she’s done to Saf by concealing her identity for so long?

It’s not necessarily a novel in which a whole lot happens, its concerns being mostly personal and psychological. Like a lot of YA fantasy, it focuses quite narrowly on its protagonist’s emotional state: the world and the characters around Bitterblue exist mainly to facilitate her self-actualisation. Her presentation is realistic in that she is as important in her narrative as we are important to ourselves: we only have access to her interiority in the novel in the same way that we only have access to our own interiority in real life. It’s therefore significant that Cashore manages to avoid the trap of suggesting that Bitterblue is the only important character in the novel: a key part of what Saf teaches her is about recognising the reality of other people, accepting that what is convenient for you may not be convenient for them, and handling power imbalances ethically and fairly.

Power has always been a key concern of the Graceling series, and here Cashore mixes the formula up a bit. Bitterblue is unlike the protagonists of the previous novels, Katsa and Fire, in that she has no magical power; her power comes from her social position. So whereas Katsa and Fire, broadly speaking, use their supernatural gifts to escape the coercive social power of others, Bitterblue has to learn to wield her social power responsibly, and to gain the goodwill and trust of those over who she has power. Both approaches are useful ones, I think, and it’s particularly notable that Katsa and Fire are specifically feminist protagonists whose stories act as correctives to traditional narratives about female characters in generic fantasy settings. But Bitterblue strikes me as the more nuanced and relevant text: Bitterblue’s experience is closer to what real teens experience as they become adults and start to learn that (at the risk of sounding flippant) other people are real too; and it approaches complex social questions that the earlier novels only really glance at. It is, for instance, the first novel in the series that’s interested in working-class concerns in a concrete way (as opposed to the general “think of the poor peasants” sentiment that pervades Graceling and Fire) – and as such I think challenges some of the class assumptions that we make when we’re reading this type of fantasy.

It is, in other words, a thoughtful, timely and interesting novel that addresses contemporary concerns about power, privilege and state reparations. It’s not perfect: in particular, I think its position on democracy as opposed to monarchy is incoherent, a problem that will become worse in the next book, Winterkeep; and the prose is distinctly workaday, lacking polish or charm. (I also found it difficult to reconcile Bitterblue’s fondness for modern-sounding sugary desserts with the sort-of-medieval setting: where are they getting all this chocolate from?) But, despite these flaws, I think it ultimately succeeds in what it’s trying to do, and asks some unusual questions about power structures in high fantasy along the way.

Review: Mister Monday

This review contains spoilers.

Mister MondayGarth Nix’s novel Mister Monday – the first in the Keys to the Kingdom series, which consists of seven books that are, yes, all named after days of the week – is one of those children’s books that, like Alice in Wonderland and much of Roald Dahl’s work, presents us with an exaggerated and apparently nonsensical view of the adult world in order to address concerns about growing up and becoming part of it. The novel’s prologue tells us about a sentient Will whose seven trustees, unwilling to execute it, have divided up into seven pieces which they have placed under constant guard; one of those pieces, however, has escaped, and is busy running around trying to be fulfilled. Back in our world, or a version of it, schoolboy Arthur Penhaligon collapses from a severe asthma attack and is handed a Key, a powerful magical artefact, by the titular Mister Monday, one of the Will’s trustees. Monday expects Arthur to die pretty much immediately, so he can then reclaim the Key while also having technically fulfilled the terms of the Will; but, thanks to the Will’s own intervention, Arthur survives, and enters the vast interdimensional House to which Monday and the other trustees belong in search of a cure for a plague that is threatening his hometown.

The House as we encounter it in Mister Monday (it takes different forms as the series goes on) is steampunk in aesthetic and bafflingly bureaucratic. There are thousands of ranks, with House denizens taking centuries to work their way up from some lowly position to a slightly higher one; there’s a decade-long queue to get an audience with Mister Monday; pretty much everyone is operating under arcane laws and restrictions that neither Arthur nor the reader have any hope of interpreting. In one scene we see a street full of people rushing about moving written documents for no reason that is ever explained (at least in this novel). It all strongly resembles a child’s idea of what an office looks like: a rigid Victorian hierarchy, uncomfortable and unfamiliar clothes, an impenetrable system of rules and regulations, an apparently arbitrary obsession with paperwork. In other words, the House appears to make little sense because office norms make little sense to children.

Which makes it significant that Nix’s child protagonist must eventually successfully navigate the House – both in order to stop the plague in our world and because Mister Monday’s actions have made him heir to the House and its environs. It’s notable that Arthur’s success in the House – which involves defeating and dethroning Mister Monday, and taking his place – directly enables his success in undoing the effects of the plague: having navigated the topsy-turvy adult world of the House, he’s able to take his first steps towards independent agency, and thus adulthood, in our world. In a particularly neat touch, both Arthur’s (deceased) birth parents and his adoptive mother Emily were instrumental in devising a cure for a flu epidemic a decade or so before the time in which the novel takes place; in effecting the cure for this new plague, Arthur is taking on his parents’ mantle, in another symbolic step towards adulthood.

So, in Mister Monday, Garth Nix is using portal fantasy to explore childhood anxieties about adulthood and agency, by having his young protagonist gain power over a distorted, fun-house version of an adult workplace – thus rendering the things that seem arbitrary about adult life more legible and therefore less sinister. Children’s literature is traditionally geared towards helping the implied child-reader become good members of the adult social order, and Mister Monday is no exception: Arthur may be a long way off true adulthood yet, but by the end of the novel he’s taken a significant step in its direction.

Review: A Guide to Folktales in Fragile Dialects

Catherynne M. Valente has been in the business of reworking and complicating pervasive cultural myths for some time – whether that’s uncovering cycles of abuse at the heart of classic fairytales as she does in Six-Gun Snow White, or criticising the treatment of women in superhero narratives in The Refrigerator Monologues. Her poetry collection A Guide to Folktales in Fragile Dialects is a very early effort, published in 2008, after her breakthrough Orphan’s Tales duology but before most of her better-known novels. As its title suggests, it’s a book that deconstructs, and then reconstructs, well-known fairytales, myths and legends in surprising and revealing ways, often restoring agency to traditionally passive female characters, or inserting new female viewpoints where none previously existed.

Take, for example, the poem “The Descent of the Corn-Queen of the Mid-West”, which begins, “Hades is a place I know in Ohio…” It’s an unsettling update of the Hades and Persephone myth, in which the Persephone figure is a woman from modern-day America; the contrast it draws between bright, mundane modernity and the Greek classicism of Hades (“Ascaphalus talks shop with me/at the Farmer’s Market”) brings her displacement from the land of the living to the world of the dead into sharp focus. The dead’s refrain of “Don’t you know these are your fruits?/Don’t you know these are your flowers?” is a sinister and ever-present reminder of her inevitable fate – and, by extension, of our own mortality.

Scattered throughout the collection are little prose pieces, presented as descriptions of stories by a folklore researcher. What unites these tales is that they are all told by women or feature women prominently, and there are often esoteric traditions around their transmission: one is told only by youngest daughters, for example, and another is told by women to their prospective husbands, their reactions to the story indicating their suitability as partners. The effect is a sense of secrecy and power: these women have control of the narrative in a way that feels somewhat radical in our own patriarchal context.

Of course, the work that Valente is doing here is not particularly unusual: she’s following in the footsteps of authors like Angela Carter and, on the theoretical side, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. Valente’s command of voice and language, which is so noticeable in novels like Palimpsest and Radiance, has not yet developed fully here, and somehow the flowing poetry of her prose is actually less remarkable – less memorable – in actual poetic form. A Guide to Folktales in Fragile Dialects has some worthwhile things to say, but it’s ultimately, I think, a minor work.

Review: Mossflower

This review contains spoilers.

MossflowerThe Goodreads page for Brian Jacques’ Mossflower, the second novel in his Redwall series (in publication order, that is; chronologically it’s third) for middle grade readers, is full of delighted reviews from adults who’ve revisited a childhood favourite and discovered that it measures up. Of course there are not many 12-year-olds writing Goodreads reviews of any book (in fact it’s against their terms of service); but compare it to something like The Wind Singer, a similarly iconic children’s novel published around the same time, and it’s obvious that the nostalgia is particularly strong with this one.

So what’s going on? I think it’s partly to do with the way Jacques constructs an idyllic English landscape that’s completely free of humans, and thus of the ennui and moral complexity that characterises modernity. The titular Mossflower is a region of woodland inhabited by hardworking mice, hedgehogs, moles and squirrels who are being tyrannised by the wildcat Lord Verdauga and his paranoid daughter Tsarmina. Our story begins when a wandering mouse named Martin is captured by Tsarmina’s troops and imprisoned in the wildcats’ castle, Kotir; there, in the dungeons, Martin meets Gonff, a merry thief who convinces him to join the woodlanders’ resistance. Together with a mole named Dinny, Martin and Gonff head out on a quest to the seashore, many days’ journey away, to find a legendary badger warrior who can help the people of Mossflower defeat Tsarmina.

One of the most notorious things about the series is the way it assigns morality based on species, despite ostensibly extolling the virtues of tolerance and peaceful coexistence. With a couple of exceptions, all rats, foxes, stoats, weasels, ferrets and wildcats are villains, while (with no exceptions) all mice, moles, squirrels, otters, badgers, shrews and hares are good, law-abiding folk. It makes a kind of emotional sense: we do think of rats, foxes and weasels as vermin, while otters, mice and moles are popularly conceived of as fluffy and benevolent. It’s also a comfortingly straightforward way of seeing the world: being able to tell good from bad just by looking makes a lot of things a lot easier. No need to decide which actions are wrong and which ones right; no need to differentiate morally between intent and impact; no need to give the benefit of the doubt to someone who ends up not deserving it. It is, of course, a falsely simplified model, and one that lies behind significant real-world harms (most notably racism, but also the unattainable beauty standards that disproportionately affect women around the world); but that simplicity is also seductive.

Another frequently-remarked-on feature of the Redwall books is their lavish descriptions of food: the woodlanders of Mossflower love a good banquet. A celebratory meal late in the novel features deeper ‘n ever pie, leek and onion broth, fruit pie, nut pudding, quince and apple crumble, plum pudding, October ale, cider and buttermilk – delicious-sounding, hearty and quintessentially British foods all, epitomising abundance and plenty. Again, it’s the stuff of blissful nostalgia, and again that nostalgia obscures something quite reactionary: all of this food has been prepared by housewife hedgehog Goody Stickle. (It’s worth noting here that while there are several prominent female characters, none of them go on the quest with Martin, and most of them are relegated to caring and domestic roles.)

What else? Well, there’s the consolatory plot structure, which sees Martin returning from his quest changed, with the skills and resources to oust Tsarmina and restore order and peace to Mossflower. There’s the squeaky clean romance between Gonff and a young mousemaid, which involves absolutely no drama or angst or awkward relationship conversations. There’s the slight Church of England vibe we get from the woodlanders, who early on welcome refugees from a place called Loamhedge Abbey, and who will go on to found the Mossflower-based Redwall Abbey (as we know from the novel’s frame narrative): their largely unexamined emphasis on inoffensive values like peace and mutual aid is reminiscent of the sort of gentle religiosity one experiences in Church of England schools.

What all of this adds up to, I think, is an overall textual affect that recalls popular constructions of childhood in the West. The moral and romantic simplicity, the importance and abundance of food, the ousting of evil by the forces of good, the unmarked Christianity: these are all hallmarks either of actual childhood or of what we as adults think it was like to be a child. Any adult re-reading a childhood favourite is in some sense attempting to revisit their childhood; but Mossflower, and the other Redwall books, make it much easier than most classic children’s texts to access the idealised, nostalgic version of childhood that we’re attempting to recapture when we do this. Its obvious ideological problems demonstrate the danger inherent in this sort of reading, and in our conceptions of children and childhood.

Review: Lirael

TW: suicidal ideation.

This review contains spoilers.

Like its predecessor Sabriel, Garth Nix’s Lirael is a classic fantasy tale of growing up and finding one’s place in the world. Its eponymous protagonist is, when the novel opens, fourteen, and profoundly miserable because she has not yet gained the gift of the Sight, the ability to see into the future that is the birthright of the mostly-female extended family and community that is the Clayr. She’s discovered contemplating suicide by a couple of senior Clayr, and to take her mind off things is offered a job in the Clayr’s Great Library, an appropriately magical and dangerous locale. Over the next few years, she inadvertently summons, and then befriends, a powerful magical being known as the Disreputable Dog, releases a monster into the Library and learns to bind it, and finally rediscovers a forgotten magical skill that holds the key to her heritage and her destiny. To complete this process of self-discovery, though, she must leave the home she’s known all her life and venture out into the Old Kingdom, in search of a young man from the mundane land of Ancelstierre, where magic doesn’t exist, who is unwittingly digging up something better left buried.

Something that struck me on this, my umpteenth re-read of Lirael, is how much Lirael’s journey to self-actualisation is tied to her heredity. The key discovery she makes in the novel is that she is the daughter of an Abhorsen, the Old Kingdom official who lays the powerful Dead that plague the kingdom to rest, working to foil the plots of necromancers. The post of Abhorsen is a hereditary one, and by a couple of other signs Lirael figures out that she (and not the hapless Prince Sameth, who we’ve seen repeatedly avoiding his studies of the necromancer’s text The Book of the Dead) is the Abhorsen-in-Waiting; and that, therefore, she will probably never have the Sight.

Lirael’s whole backstory is analogous to that of the bookish social outcast, the lonely high-school teen; one of the things the novel is addressing is the sense of inferiority young geeks often feel. You might not fit into the crowd now, Nix is saying, but there are other things you can do, other ways in which you are special. But it’s striking that the purpose Lirael ultimately finds for herself originates not in any particular skill or anything she’s worked to achieve, but in her parentage – in something she has no control over. It is basically an accident that this lonely young woman ultimately becomes one of the most important people in the Old Kingdom. The text works hard to conceal this, showing us her magical skill, her courage, her self-reliance as evidence of her worthiness. But that’s what it boils down to.

This somewhat undermines Nix’s core message about the possibility of finding belonging and purpose as a (former) geek social outcast. You can find self-actualisation even if you’re not popular – but only if you happen to be related to someone important. But it also implies an exceptionalism that plays into some pernicious real-world geek social fallacies: Lirael’s birth, and subsequent Chosen One status, makes her not just different to, but better than, the Sighted Clayr. What geeky teenager, after all, would rather be a Sighted Clayr than Lirael, who gets to explore a huge and mysterious magical library, and ends up becoming part of the royal family? Again, I think this is a tendency that the novel is trying to resist: none of the Sighted Clayr characters are shallow or cruel or gossipy the way they might be in a contemporary teen drama (apart from possibly the brusque and impatient Aunt Kirrith), and Lirael’s discovery of her parentage isn’t a magical panacea for her grief for the life she always thought she’d have. But it’s still there.

This emphasis on hereditary power is of course endemic to the fantasy genre; I suspect that Lirael‘s problems come from its participation in that genre rather than any particular authorial ideology (although opting not to scrutinise the power structures you’re working with as an author is an ideological choice in itself). And it’s handled better here than it is in other high fantasy texts; we can at least believe in Lirael’s personal ability to take on the role her birth has assigned her. Less excusable is the novel’s prose, which, in a marked departure from the accessible and relatively modern voice of Sabriel, has a portentous, overwritten quality which I imagine Nix feels is appropriate for his fantasy setting. (There probably is an argument for the difference in tone between the two novels: Sabriel was raised in Ancelstierre, which is early-to-mid-1900s in vibe, whereas Lireal belongs to the considerably more medieval Old Kingdom. But that’s not an excuse for the writing to get worse.)

Ultimately Lirael is still a novel that’s special to me; one I still enjoy, and one I’d still be moderately happy to press into the hands of another young person in the knowledge that it treats its female protagonist with respect and sensitivity. But it’s interesting – and, I’d argue, pretty important – to consider what kind of ideological considerations underlie beloved texts, and especially beloved children’s texts; if only so we can learn a bit about why we are who we are.

Review: Interesting Times

TW: transphobia.

Interesting TimesIt’s rarely a good sign when the name of a beloved author begins trending on Twitter, and so it proved over the weekend, when transphobes attempted to suggest that the works of prolific comic fantasy author Sir Terry Pratchett support their so-called “gender critical” ideology. This is…a reach, to put it mildly: Pratchett’s Discworld series features several minor characters, chief among them the dwarf Cheery Littlebottom, who can be read as transgender or genderfluid, and his works generally show a tendency towards opposing all forms of hate and any ideology that refuses to acknowledge the humanity of other people. At the same time, though, those who are defending Pratchett as a sort of ultraprogressive literary hero are, I feel, massively overstating the case: he’s nowhere near as interested in gender as either the transphobes or his liberal supporters would like him to be, and he’s more than capable of being problematic in other areas too. Interesting Times, a middle-period Discworld novel, is a salient example.

The book sees cowardly wizard (or, in his own words, “Wizzard”) Rincewind summoned to the inscrutable, powerful Agatean Empire – a caricatured analogue of China/Japan – for unknown reasons. There, he finds a people’s revolution fomenting against the cruel and oppressive imperial regime, and meets the elderly barbarian Cohen, who, together with his equally elderly Silver Horde, is planning the heist of a lifetime.

Where to start with this? Well, there’s the title, which refers to the well-known “Chinese curse”, “May you live in interesting times!” – which has never been traced back to an actual Chinese-language saying. Nevertheless, Pratchett builds on the ironic understatement of the phrase to imagine a vaguely Oriental society that’s chronically polite and rigidly hierarchical: hampered by etiquette, the revolutionary Red Army uses slogans like “Untimely Demise to the Forces of Oppression!” and “Much Ownership of Means of Production!” Their revolutionary text is What I Did on My Holidays, an account of Agatean citizen Twoflower’s visit to Pratchett’s anarchic Victorian London analogue Ankh-Morpork. (Readers first met Twoflower in The Colour of Magic, the very first Discworld novel, in which he is a caricature of a tourist.)

With all of this Pratchett is making an argument about internalised tyranny:

The Empire’s got something worse than whips all right. It’s got obedience. Whips in the soul. They [the Agatean peasants] obey anyone who tells them what to do. Freedom just means being told what to do by someone different.

While this is an interesting social dynamic to explore, and one that’s of a piece with Pratchett’s other writing on tyranny and power, it’s not one that particularly rings true in the context of historical Asia, and it’s worth considering why Pratchett felt the need to displace this particular breed of oppression into a non-Western context, when there are plenty of historical European societies that would work just as well. (The fictional Discworld country of Uberwald, which is ruled by ancient dynasties of werewolves and vampires, would have been a good place to set such a story.) Notably, Ankh-Morpork, a city ruled over by a literal tyrant, is portrayed here as a bastion of freedom and entrepreneurship, its dangers and oppressions as somehow more honest than the Empire’s. This is literally Orientalism in action, a Western-coded city-state being defined in opposition to the Eastern-coded Other, and coming out the better for the comparison.

Theoretical considerations aside, some – lots – of the jokes are just plain racist. There’s Rincewind addressing a Red Army member in a sort of broken English pidgin (which doesn’t even make sense, given that Rincewind is supposedly speaking Agatean at this point) – “Here’s bigfella keys belong door…” There are Chinese restaurant jokes. There are stereotypical, faux-exotic names that, as far as I can tell, bear no resemblance to actual Chinese nomenclature: Pretty Butterfly, One Big River. (Weirdly this actually feels more Native-coded than Chinese-coded, which just goes to show how lazy Pratchett is being in constructing Agatean culture.)

From a series perspective there is some interesting stuff going on here. Cohen and Rincewind – the ultimate hero and the arch-coward – are always good foils for each other; the fact that both end up triumphing against overwhelming odds despite their opposing worldviews is a nice touch. I like the overt metanarrative about luck and fate; that’s quite fun, despite the fact that it connects poorly to the novel’s grander themes of power and tyranny. And ultimately it’s not a nasty novel. It’s a story about putting people ahead of ideology, a story that cares about individuals in all their variety and idiosyncrasy. All the same, it’s a novel that’s aged extremely badly, and not one that Pratchett fandom should be proud of.

Review: Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper

Shark's Fin and Sichuan PepperOriginally a Cambridge English graduate raised in Oxford, food writer Fuschia Dunlop became interested in China during a stint working for the BBC Monitoring Unit in Caversham. Chasing this interest, she applied for, and won, a British Council scholarship to study at Sichuan University; but quickly lost interest in her official research into Chinese ethnic minorities, and instead enrolled on a course at the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine, the first Westerner, and the first woman, to do so. She’s now recognised as one of the foremost Western experts on Chinese cooking; Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper is the tale of how she got there.

There’s of course something a little awkward about reading a middle-class white woman speak with authority about a culture she hasn’t been raised in, although Dunlop has at least spent a significant amount of time – months, years – actually living in China. In Dunlop’s case, I’d already read her cookbooks The Food of Sichuan and Land of Fish and Rice, which the Bandersnatch has been cooking from, and which, for me, illuminated a number of things that can make Chinese cooking seem unpalatable by Western standards. In particular, texture is key in Chinese cuisine: it’s why you see things like jellyfish and chicken gizzards on the menu at good Chinese restaurants in the West. It’s this kind of context – supplemented by historical material about the origins of particular dishes and particular branches of Chinese cooking – that makes the writing in Dunlop’s cookbooks feel deeply informed, going beyond the exoticism and Orientalism that’s endemic in Western writing about Asian cuisine to become something that’s both accessible to Western readers and at least approaching “authentic”. I mean, it’s still uncomfortable that Dunlop is a leading expert on this subject, and not an actual Chinese person – even if this isn’t precisely Dunlop’s fault. But it does, at least, seem to be actual expertise.

I’d say Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper veers a little more into exoticising territory, though, perhaps simply because of its nature as a personal memoir rather than reference-book writing. Dunlop has a tendency to make rather generalising statements about whole cities and regions:

No one would decide to go and live in Chongqing after such a baptism of fire [Dunlop is referring here to the chilli-heat of Chongqing cuisine]. But Chengdu is a gentle city. Life there is not a battle against the elements and the gradient of hills; it is a sweet, idle dream.

There’s a fair bit of this sort of thing, details that make it clear that Dunlop’s seeing China from the outside, and not as a full-time inhabitant would. As in her cookbooks, however, there’s also real, thought-provoking engagement with the history and context of Chinese cuisine and food culture. Dunlop traces the progression of her deepening love for Chinese food – and especially Sichuan food – and then, in later chapters, reveals her disillusionment with the country: with its rife corruption, the endemic pollution, the thriving trade in meat from endangered species. She visits Xinjiang and describes the discrimination that Uyghur Muslims were facing there even back in 2008, in a foreshadowing of the internment camps that exist across the region today. She describes how the increasing wealth of China’s middle class is pushing up demand for rare delicacies, decimating ecosystems around the world. Dunlop’s research background shines here: it’s all fascinating analysis about one of the world’s largest economic powers, although again her framing of China’s flaws as personal disappointments for her, a Westerner, gives the whole thing a slightly uncomfortable cast.

Even when she isn’t being critical, there are things Dunlop writes about that I would rather not have read, on the whole. The subject of eating puppies comes up several times. More seriously, Dunlop describes methods of animal butchery that are literally inhumane: she describes somebody skinning a rabbit without killing it first, for example, and goes on to praise the “honesty” of such a process, compared to the sanitised industrial meat production that goes on in the West. This, to me, is symptomatic of Dunlop’s romanticising of Chinese food culture: both processes, Chinese and Western, seem equally inhumane in different ways, and neither is particularly excusable.

There are problems with Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper, then; its very nature, as an account of a Westerner’s relationship with China, means it’s never going to be entirely satisfactory as an authority on that country. But, on the whole, I did quite enjoy it. I like that it does engage with criticisms of China; that it illuminates aspects of Chinese food culture for Westerners; that it draws attention to regional differences in Chinese cuisine which are often blurred in the Western cultural consciousness. Fascinating and imperfect, it’s well worth a read if you’re at all interested in Chinese food.