Review: The Overstory

The OverstoryOne of the main criticisms that I’ve seen levelled against Richard Powers’ Booker-shortlisted eco-novel The Overstory is its lack of complex characterisation. In a judgement for the Tournament of Books, for example, Tomi Obaro writes that “Characters increasingly felt more like archetypes than real, lived-in people…[Powers] loses the people for the trees.” Others have pointed out its use of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope and its stereotyping of its Chinese-American and Indian-American characters. These flaws all undoubtedly exist; but they’re interesting to me because I think they’re by-products of an attempt to write a literary novel that is not anthropocentric. That is: if Powers misses the people for the trees, it’s because he means to.

It’s a messy novel, hard to summarise, that weaves together multiple strands and plotlines; but at its heart it brings together nine-ish characters whose lives have been changed or shaped, for better or for worse, by trees. Neelay Mehta falls from a tree as a child and is permanently paralysed; Olivia Vandergriff, having undergone a near-death experience, hears the voices of the USA’s last redwood trees calling on her to protect them; Nicholas Hoel is the inheritor of a remarkable family heirloom, a collection of old-style analogue photographs of a chestnut tree, taken every day from the same angle for close on a century. And so on. Many of these stories eventually become woven around tree-focused activism of some sort: a camp of hippies defending virgin forest against loggers; weeks spent in the branches of a towering redwood slated for felling; amateur arson in the dark.

What makes the novel different from the countless such sprawling social narratives Western literary culture has produced since Dickens (see also: Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru; Jonathan Franzen’s Purity; David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks; and so on) is Powers’ ascribing of intent to the trees: they narrate key passages as a sort of Greek chorus, and may or may not influence events in the narrative. This is well and subtly done: the trees’ narration is used sparingly enough that it never becomes cheap or trite or easy, and similarly their agency in the story is always sufficiently doubtful (is the compulsion Olivia feels just a side-effect of her accident? Did that tree really tip Neelay to the ground, or is that an impression born of a child’s overactive imagination?) that their true purposes remain unknowable, just out of sight. The trees of The Overstory are not wise, kindly Treebeards on the side of all good people; the effect is rather that of a vast, unknowable, alien presence lurking just off-page.

Powers writes with wonder and awe of the things that trees can do: of forests connected to a single underground organism spreading across acres; of the organic chemicals they emit to communicate with each other, chemicals that can even affect humans; of the incredible feats of biology that allow giant redwoods to draw water and nutrients up fifty metres into the air. In the face of their age, majesty and size, and the vast tragedy that is the deforestation of the USA, the actions of individual humans, however well-intentioned, begin to look increasingly irrelevant and futile. The trees, in other words, are the true protagonist of The Understory; individual trees (Mimas the giant redwood, the Hoel chestnut, the evergreen grove that engineer Mimi Ma fails to save) as well as trees in the abstract; and if the human characters are thinly sketched and their motivations questionable, it’s because they are, for Powers, not the focus of the story. Their individual subjectivities are relatively insignificant in the grand scale of the narrative.

It’s a bold approach for a genre like litfic that is generally focused on the individual bourgeois psyche, and not one that’s entirely successful. That the human characters are not ultimately important does not mean that they need to be lazy stereotypes; indeed, using such stereotypes in this way to gesture at humanity in the abstract suggests problematically that Powers thinks such stereotypes are true, or at the very least accurately representative. There are also odd threads of story that Powers fails to weave wholly successfully into his narrative tapestry: Neelay’s plotline, which sees him developing a massively profitable MMORPG based on exploring and developing a virgin world, seems poorly thematically integrated into the rest of the novel; similarly, it’s hard to see where stroke-paralysed Ray and his unfaithful but caring wife Dottie fit in. Ray and Dottie’s imaginary daughter is called Olivia, a detail which, together with the fact that another character’s story has an alternative ending that depends on whether she meets Neelay or not, suggests an underdeveloped mystical/many-worlds angle. It’s as if Powers has gone for a Cloud Atlas-ish “everything is connected” vibe without quite knowing what he intends to do with it.

And yet, for all its flaws, I find myself thinking of The Overstory when I’m out among trees, thinking of that vast and unknowable consciousness and all the things we’re still learning about these remarkable organisms that we share our planet with. The Overstory may be a flawed attempt to grapple with a non-human perspective, but it’s attempt I’ve seen relatively few writers make, especially outside the walled garden of SFF. So many of our narratives about the climate crisis and biodiversity loss centre humanity, even those that cast us as the villains; perhaps, if we are to reverse the damage we are doing to the natural world, radical change and radical approaches are needed. Powers’ is one such approach; I hope others will follow.

Review: Possession

PossessionIn the foreword to her bestselling romantic novel Possession (1990), A.S. Byatt discusses the various meanings of the work’s title: the physical ownership of an item; the state of being taken over, possessed, by a strong emotion or an evil spirit; the sense in which one’s lover belongs to one. The novel addresses all these forms of possession, and a couple of others, in various ways, particularly through the lens of academia and the practice of studying the work and lives of the long dead.

It centres on two British scholars, Roland Michell and Dr Maud Bailey, who specialise in the writings of two fictional Victorian poets – respectively, Randolph Henry Ash, a man with the sort of literary reputation that Tennyson or Wordsworth have in our world; and Christabel LaMotte, a “minor” poet whose work has recently been rediscovered by third-wave feminists. Roland and Maud are brought together when Roland finds and steals a previously unknown letter written by Ash to a woman later discovered to be LaMotte. Together, they investigate the connection, piecing together the story of Ash and LaMotte’s romance, which is complicated in plausibly Victorian ways by the fact that Ash is married and by LaMotte’s proto-feminist, possibly sapphically-underpinned desire for a quiet life of self-reliant sisterhood with her companion Blanche. Meanwhile, in the present day, both Roland and Maud are dealing with their own romantic disappointments (which parallel Ash and LaMotte’s in quite interesting ways), as well as attempting to outrun the investigations of two prominent Ash scholars who they suspect will try and take ownership of the story in their own ways.

One of the things that stands out most to me about Possession is how steeped it is in the culture and practice of academia, and how interested it is in the concerns of career academics. A former academic herself, Byatt understands what a Big Fucking Deal it is when Roland steals an uncatalogued letter instead of reporting it to the librarian, and how much, career-wise, depends for her characters on whether they can get first dibs on the Ash-LaMotte story; and these pressures, these concerns are central to the novel’s narrative engine. This is academia seen not as an ivory tower where intellectuals are empowered to live pure lives of the mind, which is how it tends to be portrayed in mainstream works like Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian or Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, but as a field rife with internecine struggles that largely have nothing to do with the actual research being undertaken.

In particular, it’s fascinating to see Byatt drawing out how apparently administrative concerns like who owns a particular letter, or who has the rights to edit a body of work, can materially affect whole areas of scholarship; in other words, how questions of ownership and possession play out in this supposedly disinterested profession. A pressing issue for Roland and Maud in the novel is who the legal owner of a bundle of previously unknown letters between Ash and LaMotte is, and thus whether they can be sold away to an American collector before anyone gets a chance to study them properly.

These questions appear in guises beyond the material too. Roland, Maud and the Ash scholars on their trail all feel a sense of ownership over the Ash-LaMotte correspondence, and over the lives and work of two once-living people, on the basis that they themselves have dedicated their working lives to analysing those people’s words and material realities. They all feel entitled to claim either Ash’s work or LaMotte’s for their various ideologies – whether feminist, Great Man-patriarchal or psychosexual. Byatt ironises the legitimacy of these feelings of entitlement and ownership by giving the reader a direct, third-person omniscient window into the poets’ romance at several points in the narrative – granting us knowledge that none of the modern-day characters possess, and thereby demonstrating the shakiness of the hold the scholars have on Ash and LaMotte’s lives, which are too messy and fraught for any single ideology to capture.

It’s tempting to see in this a response to the debate over the usefulness of theory in the analysis of literary texts that raged in the 1980s and 90s. Several times Byatt refers to the contemporary vogue for psychosexual readings of historic texts, and draws attention to the ways in which such readings reveal the limitations of the culture in which they’re produced; these readings, for Byatt, close down avenues of interpretation rather than opening them up, acting as ways to classify texts rather than as productive approaches to them. In the same way, no one single ideology is ultimately sufficient to encapsulate the reality of what went on between Ash and LaMotte in Byatt’s novel, and attempting to impose a simple interpretation onto their relationship – to claim ownership of the ability and the right to do so – is to do violence to the complex and contradictory reality of their lives and emotions.

This all might seem rather abstruse for a mainstream novel, but in the social media age it has resonances that Byatt cannot have foreseen. What Roland and Maud do to Ash and LaMotte is not very different to what we do when we follow celebrities and people in the public eye on Twitter and Facebook: we assume that their public personae represent authentically the entirety of who they are as people, we imagine ourselves as their friends, and we assume that we’re entitled to their innermost thoughts and feelings. Possession is a story about the perils of reading, and the impossibility of accessing the fullness of a person through their writing: as Byatt reveals, the reader’s biases are always in play. Formally adventurous (it features over 1000 lines of faux-Victorian poetry), emotionally complex and deeply informed by literary theory, it’s a wonderfully satisfying, layered novel that I can readily see myself returning to.

Review: Goodbye, Vitamin

Goodbye VitaminIt’s remarkable that I can have all but forgotten the details of a novel that deals with so heart-rending a subject as dementia, and yet, six months after reading Rachel Khong’s Goodbye, Vitamin, here we are. Khong’s protagonist is Ruth, a 30-something who returns home for a year when her father develops Alzheimer’s in order to help her mother care for him and adjust to her new reality.

The story of that year is narrated by Ruth in short, diary-like snippets: she relates her mother’s newfound obsession with preparing and serving unprocessed food; her own efforts to help her father keep teaching after he’s fired from the university he once lectured at for his increasingly erratic conduct; and the realisations she comes to about her parents’ marriage, including her father’s alcoholism and infidelity. Ruth’s voice is wry, lightly humorous and frankly not terribly original; you’ll be familiar with the general tone if you’ve ever watched an episode of Call the Midwife.

That sounds perhaps more damning than I mean it to be. I actually quite like Call the Midwife: I wish more television shared its gentleness and its hopefulness in the face of poverty, discrimination and political upheaval. Similarly, the grace and tenderness with which Khong’s characters face the dissolution of memory and the slow disappearance of a loved one is quietly touching and intensely humane; these are ordinary people making ordinary mistakes, and ultimately trying to do their best for each other in their own ways.

But, as with Call the Midwife, I think the humour and the gentleness flattens the intensity of what these characters are facing: it’s a consolatory move, a reassurance that actually everything is all right, when in reality it is not. The thing about dementia is that the person you knew is both gone forever and still there, in front of you, changed; and Khong’s wry tone here smooths over that disconnect, papers over that grief, in a way that is ultimately unsatisfying. I enjoyed the novel – while I was reading it. But nothing about it has stayed with me.

Review: Late Eclipses

This review contains spoilers.

Late EclipsesIn this, the fourth novel in Seanan McGuire’s urban fantasy series following the exploits of fae PI October Daye, McGuire expands on a theme that began to take shape in its predecessor, An Artificial Night, and which will become increasingly important as the series goes on: the nature and desirability of heroism. In An Artificial Night, you’ll remember, Toby’s heroism was tantamount to a death wish, as she returned again and again into danger (in a fashion that ultimately became quite annoying) in order to slay the immensely powerful Blind Michael. Late Eclipses sees the consequences of that deed catching up with her, as the mercurial Queen of the Mists puts Toby on trial for the murder of a Firstborn, a crime that carries a death sentence. At the same time, her friends and allies, powerful members of the fae, are being poisoned by a villain with the ability to shape Toby’s thoughts, once again raising the spectre of the madness to which changelings and others with mixed fae heritage are supposedly subject. Can a Toby no longer in control of her own mind be trusted? And can she escape the Queen of the Mist’s persecution?

Interestingly, I think both of these questions are in their different ways approaching an issue that’s more often explored in modern superhero narratives: to what extent should heroic behaviour be subject to external scrutiny? The text takes it for granted, for instance, that Toby should be let off killing Blind Michael because he was a sadistic monster who refused to stop kidnapping and effectively mutilating children. And while it’s possible – in fact I think quite uncontroversial – that Toby’s act was justified, and it’s flagrantly obvious that the Queen’s motivations for trying Toby are political rather than born out of a desire to serve justice, it’s interesting that McGuire’s focus remains on the Queen’s unfairness in bringing the trial at all rather than the fact that the trial is a sham. Toby is eventually exonerated through something of a legal technicality, but there’s still the suggestion that as a heroic figure she’s granted the latitude to operate outside the normal rules of Faerie – in the same way that her changeling status makes her an outsider to fae high society.

The question of whether Toby’s mind is her own, and the ever-present threat of madness that lies behind her actions, is I think the flipside to this privileged outsider status, madness and mental illness having been used throughout literature and history conceptually to neutralise those who would not or could not conform to social norms. So McGuire is using the threat of madness to index the potential vulnerability of fae society to someone who is allowed to operate outside fae laws as Toby is: she has the power to wreak great destruction on that society as well as to save it. Or, to put it more simply, her heroism is a danger as well as a help.

As I’ve said, these are all concepts that have been explored before in the context of the superhero genre, and while it’s interesting to see them used in an urban fantasy text I’m not sure that McGuire is doing anything new with them. Late Eclipses is also, for my money, the least interesting and distinctive novel of the series so far, replacing the folkloric resonance that differentiates the first three novels from the vast majority of urban fantasy with what are ultimately some rather mundane political manoeuvrings. It remains, nevertheless, a pleasant enough filler read, and I’m looking forward to thinking about how McGuire’s depiction of heroism evolves as the series continues.

Review: Unconquerable Sun

Unconquerable SunKate Elliott’s most recent novel, 2020’s Unconquerable Sun, has been marketed fairly extensively as “gender-swapped Alexander the Great in space”. I have to say that Alexander the Great as a cultural touchstone means little to me: about the only two things I knew about him before looking at his Wikipedia page last night were that he had a horse called Bucephalus and that he was really excellent at conquering other nations. I’ve certainly never come across a tradition of Alexander the Great literature (a tradition like the Matter of Britain, say, or the endless readaptations of Shakespeare or Austen or Grimm fairytales); but given his military reputation, and specifically his reputation for conquest, I have to say that science fiction, a genre whose most characteristic impulses sprang directly from colonialism, seems a natural choice for adapting and examining his story.

Elliott’s Alexander analogue is Sun, Princess of the Republic of Chaonia, a nation that has recently driven out the occupying Phene Empire and which is now in the process of expanding into Phene territory. Sun is desperate to prove her military acumen to her mother, an ambition that’s complicated by the fact that her father isn’t Chaonian, exposing Sun to suspicion and leaving her vulnerable should her mother choose to marry again. Her father, meanwhile, a prince of the space-nomadic Gatoi, is working on a top-secret project researching the Phene Empire’s use of Gatoi soldiers, and whether the Gatoi’s famous loyalty to their employers has a more sinister origin than the Phene would have their neighbours believe.

Unconquerable Sun, then, is a space opera/military SF novel that’s centrally concerned with power, conquest and the machinery of war. What’s particularly interesting about it is that, despite Sun’s place at the centre of the text (along with her hand-picked, high-status Companions) and the narrative status she’s given by analogy with Alexander the Great, the novel isn’t necessarily wholly on her side. In fact we have three point of view characters here: Sun herself; a woman named Persephone Lee who has attempted to disown her powerful Chaonian family in order to attend military academy; and Apama, a newly-fledged Phene pilot who’s assigned to a major campaign against Chaonia. Apama and Sun are obviously on opposite sides, and yet both are sympathetic; Persephone’s story draws attention to the unprincipled self-interest at work among Chaonia’s ruling families, effectively the social order that Sun is fighting for.

The idea that Chaonia is perhaps not fully a force for good is further reinforced by the glimpses we get of everyday life there. Although full citizens seem to have a relatively high standard of living –public transport is free, for example, albeit as part of the war effort – the celebration of royal occasions such as the queen-marshal’s wedding is mandatory. And one of Sun’s bodyguards, Ti, is the daughter of refugees; her willingness to put herself in extreme danger, even to die, in order to collect her paycheck for her family, is an indication of how desperate their situation is; an indication that’s confirmed when we see the off-world refugee camp where they live later on in the novel, where even fresh air is rationed for non-citizens.

There is, in other words, a nice sense of roundedness to Unconquerable Sun: it’s interested in complicating simple notions of good and bad, heroism and villainy, the conqueror and the conquered. That roundedness extends to the queer representation we get in the novel: same-gender relationships are unremarkable, and Sun’s mother the queen-marshal has at least two spouses that we know of (one male, one female). It’s there, too, in the attempt Elliott has made to depict a version of the future that is non-Western: Chaonian culture in particular has a vaguely Asian flavour, although it is just that, flavour, rather than anything more substantial.

That, and other flaws, make this a solid novel rather than an exceptional one: on a sentence level the writing is a little clumsy – not terrible, just insufficiently harmonious – and Elliott is unfortunately prone to infodump. I also think Elliott could have perhaps done more with her historical premise: as it is the Alexander the Great parallels feel more like an Easter egg for history buffs than anything that actually informs the novel thematically or metatextually. But I enjoyed the crunchiness of it, its willingness to complicate its readers’ preconceptions; to show us a full picture of a universe at war, and who loses and who gains from that. Its awareness of axes of power, social and political, and how they operate on ordinary people both civilian and military. I’m moderately surprised this wasn’t on the Hugo ballot this year; Elliott’s a recognised name in SFF at the moment, and Unconquerable Sun is precisely the kind of novel that Hugo voters are rewarding right now. In any case, I’m looking forward to reading the sequel.

Film Review: Crazy Rich Asians

Hollywood shapes all things in its image. While the novel from which John M. Chu’s 2018 romcom Crazy Rich Asians is adapted is one whose pleasures are ultimately consolatory and conservative, it does at least resist providing an entirely happy ending for the couple at its heart. Its villains remain villainous and, for all its rags-to-riches wish-fulfilment vibe, its Cinderella figure’s access to entrenched power structures remains tenuous and contingent.

The film, by contrast, is as thoroughly conventional, structurally speaking, as it’s possible to get, although its predictability is somewhat leavened by strong performances from the likes of Constance Wu, Henry Golding and Gemma Chan. Wu and Golding play Rachel and Nick, a seemingly ordinary middle-class couple in New York who find their relationship under sudden strain when Nick invites Rachel back to meet his family in Singapore, only for her to discover that they’re some of the wealthiest people in the country. Will Rachel ever be accepted by Nick’s snobby high-society family?

The answer is, inevitably, yes, and the film has to sacrifice some of its own character work to achieve this: Nick’s cold, unhappy grandmother Eleanor, who has throughout the film remained resolute in her hostility towards Rachel, performs an unearned about-face at the end in a move that somewhat fatally undermines the seriousness of the social problem that Nick and Rachel must overcome to be together. Similarly, the film’s “mean girls” are far less relentless and uncompromising in their disdain for Rachel than they were in the novel, as well as far less inclined to seduce Nick away from Rachel. The novel has what teeth it does partly because Nick’s family’s extreme wealth is presented as a real threat to Nick and Rachel’s relationship; the film dilutes even that quite basic understanding of privilege and instead renders the fabulous wealth of its characters as a fabulous fantasy with no real-world effects or ramifications. Who doesn’t want to hire out an entire tropical island for their hen party, amirite?

Crazy Rich Asians is, of course, remarkable for the fact that it’s a major Hollywood film featuring an almost entirely non-white cast, a phenomenon that’s still lamentably rare – and while it’s good to see mainstream films looking beyond the concerns of the global north, there’s been plenty of criticism of this particular film for actually reinforcing dominant hegemonies in Singapore itself.

Ultimately, as a film, it’s basically fine. Watching it is a not-bad way to spend two hours, if you’re after something untaxing and conventional. But I can’t particularly see myself watching it again, the way I can see myself returning to the novel: ironically, despite the wealth and power its characters possess, the stakes are simply not high enough to make it truly engaging.

Review: Paper Girls 2

Paper Girls 2Nostalgia, regret and the inexorable passage of time are some of the themes that Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang tackle in this second volume of the comic series Paper Girls. In this volume, the titular teenage newspaper deliverers are flung forward in time to 2016, where Erin comes face-to-face with the adult version of herself and Mackenzie learns something unpleasant about her future. In keeping with the chaotic, fling-it-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks feel of the first volume, there are also airships, giant tardigrades, time-travelling clones and battle pterodactyls.

I still don’t have a great sense of what’s going on plotwise here, but once again it works because the story’s central quartet are so vividly emotionally realised. Our confusion is the girls’ confusion, and we piece together what’s going on at the same rate as they do. As a result, they feel convincingly ordinary, swept up in events that are much larger than they are.

This emotional grounding also allows for some extremely poignant moments – as when adult Erin’s grown-up cynicism meets young Erin’s determination and pluck, and both are forced to consider the trajectory of their life. It’s these moments that stand out amidst the science-fictional zaniness, keeping our attention on the human stories at the heart of the narrative.

Consuming serial works like comics, TV seasons or even fantasy trilogies is in large part about trust: do I trust that this creative team knows what they’re doing, that they can weave the disparate threads of story into something coherent and meaningful, in short that they are doing what they do intentionally? With the first two volumes of Paper Girls, Vaughan, Chiang and the rest of the team absolutely establish that trust: we’re in the hands of capable creators who know exactly what they’re doing. As readers, we just need to settle in for the ride.

Review: Fragile Things

Fragile ThingsNeil Gaiman needs little introduction: easily one of the bestselling and best-known SFF authors out there, he’s responsible for lucrative media properties including comic book series The Sandman, the novels Good Omens (with Terry Pratchett) and American Gods, the TV adaptations of which have strong fan followings, as well as Stardust and Coraline, which have been turned into beloved feature films. He is, in short, a major voice in the field, commercially if not aesthetically; as an author who’s won numerous genre awards, he’s a good indicator of what kind of work the core genre community consistently rewards.

His 2006 collection of “Short Fictions and Wonders” Fragile Things contains 28 short stories and poems written between 1997 and 2006, four of which are Locus and Hugo award-winners; the collection as a whole won a British Fantasy Award and a Locus award in 2007. I emphasise this because, appropriately given the book’s title (although not in the way I suspect Gaiman intended it), almost every piece in Fragile Things feels slight, insubstantial, unmemorable; nothing here, to me, is remotely award-worthy.

Take those four winning stories. First up, “A Study in Emerald”, voted Locus Best Novelette in 2004, a Lovecraft/Sherlock Holmes mashup in which the monarchs of Europe are Great Old Ones. It’s one of the better stories of the collection, I’d say, but one that never rises beyond pastiche: certainly it never approaches the atmosphere of gibbering horror that lies just beneath the surface of Lovecraft’s excessive purple prose.

The same is true of “Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Nameless House of the Night of Dread Desire”, a Locus Best Short Story winner whose premise is so utterly facile that I am actively annoyed by it. The story’s protagonist lives in a Gothic mansion where melodramatic happenings such as shrieking ghosts, swordfights with estranged family members and ravens cawing “Nevermore!” are all commonplace occurrences; he finds escapism in writing what we would consider literary realism, which to him is fluffy fantasy. That’s it. That’s the story. It’s what I think of as a “punchline story”: a piece that’s structurally identical to a joke, in that it’s constructed solely around a piece of wordplay or an unexpected inversion or a literalised metaphor, without having anything to say beyond “look how clever I am”.

“How to Talk to Girls at Parties”, another Locus Best Short Story winner, falls neatly into this category too. The teenage protagonist attends a house party where he meets two girls who are actually aliens – except, because he’s already expecting teenage girls in general to be unapproachable, sophisticated and generally Other, he doesn’t actually notice. There is, as several commentators have noted, some truth in the notion that when you are fourteen it can feel as though people of other genders might as well be from another planet: teenage me certainly felt that way about boys. The problem here is that, as with many “punchline stories”, it’s painfully obvious from very early on just how the piece will turn out; as soon as the narrator’s friend Vic says the fateful words “They’re just girls…They don’t come from another planet” there’s no need to read any further. The boys meet the aliens; then they leave, and forget about them. Again, that’s it; there’s nothing else going on here.

“Sunbird”, the final award-winning story in the collection (another Locus Best Short Story), is, like “A Study in Emerald”, a reasonably competent piece that nevertheless makes little impact. An Epicurean Club whose members have spent their lives in pursuit of ever rarer delicacies take the opportunity to sample a phoenix, but things don’t go entirely their way. There’s a nicely folkloric slant to the tale, a resonant bit of poetic irony, but the piece lacks the sharp edge of menace it needs to make it truly effective.

In fact true menace, or at the very least a sense of Gothic atmosphere, is what’s missing from most of the stories in this collection – a problem that renders horror stories like “The Flints of Memory Lane”, “Closing Time” and “Feeders and Eaters” little more than shaggy dog stories. Ephemera like “Strange Little Girls”, “My Life” and “Diseasemaker’s Croup”, written to accompany, respectively, a CD, a photograph and a book of fictional illnesses, do little to add to the weightiness of the collection; the same is true of Gaiman’s poetry, which is overly literal and none too euphonious.

The one piece that I think really properly works here is also the only one I’d read before: the novella The Monarch of the Glen, which takes place in the American Gods universe. That novel’s protagonist, Shadow, is hired to provide security to what is apparently a highly exclusive weekend of revelry in a remote manor house in Scotland – only to discover that the weekend is a cover for a sinister and ancient ritual. This story possesses the atmosphere of menace, the folkloric resonance, that the rest of the collection is missing; there’s a sense of dark forces lurking beneath the apparently mundane everyday, and Gaiman does a good job of mapping his modern protagonists onto the myths he’s working from. There’s also a layer of social commentary here, the revellers’ privilege and entitlement contrasted with the itinerant lifestyle Shadow (a Black man who has been in prison) leads.

Overall, though, this is not an impressive collection. It’s not so much that these stories are bad: they’re decently constructed and clearly expressed; the dialogue mostly feels natural and authentic; the prose is competent. They are, in short, professional efforts by an author who’s been in the game a long time. But that’s the very least one should be able to expect from someone who’s received so much praise and recognition from the community. The pieces collected in Fragile Things have no teeth, no substance; as texts that aim to unsettle, they pull their punches too often to stick in the memory. I’m sceptical, to say the least, that any of these stories were the best of their year.

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.