Tag: animals

Review: The Travelling Cat Chronicles

The Google search page for Hiro Arikawa’s The Travelling Cat Chronicles claims that “93% liked this book”. Notwithstanding the vagueness of this statistic (93% of whom, exactly?), it sounds about right: this is a very likable novel. Likability is, I’d say, its chief characteristic.

Japanese bachelor Satoru befriends a stray cat who he calls Nana; when Nana is hit by a car, Satoru takes Nana in permanently, much to the cat’s surprise. After a period of happy coexistence, Satoru and Nana embark on a mysterious road trip, visiting a number of Satoru’s friends and acquaintances. It quickly becomes apparent that Satoru is looking for a new home for Nana; why he wants to do this remains opaque for some time, although any moderately savvy reader will figure it out fairly early on.

The novel’s partly narrated by Nana, whose voice is world-weary and yet also somehow naïve. It is of course his and Satoru’s devotion to each other that forms the core of the novel: the mismatch between their perspectives generates a sense almost of tragedy, as Nana bumbles happily through life while we intuit from Satoru that something is seriously wrong. It’s an effective tactic, but not a subtle one; and in fact the entire novel feels like that, a text carefully tuned to tug on the reader’s heartstrings. It’s all a little…mechanical.

A big part of what made the novel feel so artificial to me is Nana’s narration and behaviour, which are both fundamentally un-catlike. His frame of reference is too human: he does not experience the world moment to moment as animals do, living in the here and now, but as a series of events moving from past to future, as humans do. The concepts he thinks with are fundamentally human ones:

The least they could do would be to stuff those [cat] toys with white meat. But could I take this complaint to the pet-toymakers? Stop worrying about what the owners think and pay some attention to your real clients. Your real clients are folk like me.

In this passage Nana is demonstrating that he understands how business (a uniquely human concept) works, and also that he thinks of Satoru as specifically his owner; that’s not how real cats relate to the humans they live with. I feel like the novel would be a more honest and more emotionally devastating experience if it had had the courage not to anthropomorphise Nana.

And yet I’m pretty sure I cried at the end of it; which I suppose is a decent indication that Arikawa achieved what she was aiming to achieve with it. It’s a novel perfectly calculated to please: one to like, but not one to love.

Review: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

How does one review a novel like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Its cultural legacy precedes it: a film adaptation that’s widely recognised as one of the greatest pieces of SF cinema of all time; an influence that’s discernible in the work of nearly every major SF writer of the twentieth century; a regular spot on “best SF novels of all time” lists. As a reader, how do you form your own opinion in the face of such a legacy? And as a reviewer, how do you write honestly about the novel without simply repeating the views of critics gone before?

These are particularly apt questions for Do Androids Dream, a novel whose main concern is precisely authenticity. Protagonist Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter for the San Francisco Police Department, is assigned to find and destroy six escaped androids of an advanced model nearly indistinguishable from a human. The only way to tell the difference is by applying something called the Voigt-Kampf test, which apparently tracks eye movement to test for empathy – something androids seemingly do not have. But does the test work? Could an advanced android pass it – or a neurodivergent human fail? Human emotion is, after all, most often synthesised in the world of the novel, with both Deckard and his wife Iran using “Penfield Mood Organs” to dial up sensations like hope, depression and joy on demand. Both Deckard and Iran are also followers of a religion known as Mercerism, using so-called “empathy boxes” to tune into a simulation of the religion’s central figure Wilbur Mercer climbing an endless hill while being pelted with stones – a simulation that gives every user access to every other user’s emotions. But is Wilbur Mercer himself real, or just an obscure actor in a strange film? What about the talk-show host they all listen to, apparently the only source of entertainment in Dick’s blasted, post-apocalyptic future? How does he broadcast twenty-four hours a day on multiple channels?

Then there’s the electric sheep of the novel’s title. Animals are all but extinct in this particular future, thanks to a ghastly nuclear war that has left vast tracts of land barren and tainted the human genome (causing another blurring of the boundaries between human and inhuman). To own a live animal is a much-prized status symbol; but they’re so expensive that an industry has sprung up to supply good fakes for the purposes of keeping up appearances, and there are several moments in the novel when a live animal is confused for an electric one, and vice versa. (This can be distressing, as when a seriously ill cat dies because nobody realises it’s real. Here I’ll also give a content warning for graphic animal cruelty in a scene late in the novel.)

So the novel’s affect is a kind of epistemological uncertainty. The question “how can we tell the difference between the authentic and the fake?” is not one that has an answer. We can’t. It has become impossible, Dick suggests, in our world of machines and computers and devices. (In this he is startlingly prescient: the novel was published in 1968, before the internet, social media, chatbots, VR…) Just as there is now no way to experience his novel “authentically”, free of the influence of the thousands of critics, novelists and film directors who have responded to it down the years.

For what it’s worth: I, personally, was not a massive fan. I’ve written about this before, but I tend not to enjoy novels characterised by unrelenting bleakness: I need a little hope, a little humanity, to keep me going, and Dick’s barren, denuded world is not one I particularly want to spend time in. Its importance to the genre is undeniable, and for that reason I guess I’m glad I read it. But it’s not a text that particularly spoke to me, or one I’m keen to revisit.

Review: Blackfish City

This review contains spoilers.

Sam J. Miller’s second novel Blackfish City is a tale about the value of connection in the face of oppressive capitalist systems that seek to keep us apart. The titular city is Qaanaaq, a floating metropolis somewhere in the Arctic Circle, in a future ravaged by climate change. Qaanaaq is run not by humans but by an algorithm making supposedly disinterested decisions that nevertheless seem to benefit the city’s landlord class more than its much larger proletariat. To this socially stratified yet vibrant city comes a mysterious woman accompanied by a killer whale and a polar bear: who is she? Why has she come to Qaanaaq? What is the nature and meaning of her connection with these two iconic apex predators?

The novel is peopled by loners: Soq, a messenger living a hand-to-mouth existence in Qaanaq’s poorest district; Kaev, a bareknuckles fighter afflicted by something like PTSD; Fill, Soq’s sometime lover, a rich gay man with a disease called “the breaks” that’s passed through bodily fluids and causes visions of the experiences of other carriers; and Ankit, a campaign manager for one of the city’s few politicians. The woman with the killer whale – Masaaraq – brings these disparate figures unexpectedly together: they are a family, separated by prejudice; their reunion, though fraught and complex, helps make each of them whole.

The novel’s theme of radical connection goes deeper than that, though. Masaaraq, it turns out, is among the last of a legendary community of people who were bonded to wild animals by experimental nanotech: so what looks like dominance over the natural world actually turns out to be something much more mutual. That same nanotech, brought to Qaanaaq, offers a cure for the breaks that preserves the disease’s empathic potential without its lethal consequences.

Then there’s City Without a Map: a sort of podcast within the world of the novel, narrated by people from all walks of life, telling stories of life in Qaanaaq. Its creator(s) are anonymous; but in bringing together this range of experiences to tell a single story about the city it creates a skein of connection that conceptually links each inhabitant together. In other words it does exactly what Blackfish City itself does – reveals the shared humanity that binds us to each other.

All of this builds up to a moment when Soq is able to seize a lot of property from the shadowy landlords who keep that property empty. It’s not made clear what they’ll do with it, but their frequently-articulated love for Qaanaaq seems to suggest that revolution is in the offing – that they’ll use it to build a kinder and a fairer city for all. In this way the newly reconstituted family, connected by bonds of love, stands against the faceless, invisible hand of the market which pretends to a false objectivity.

If the novel has a fault it is that its bringing together of Masaaraq’s family feels a little too pat, their finding each other again too much of a coincidence to credit. But on the whole it’s a good read that covers a lot of ground thematically; one that balances hope for a transformed future with clear-eyed realism about where our current problems might take us.

Review: Zoo City

This review contains spoilers.

Lauren Beukes’ second novel Zoo City has a fair amount in common with Fonda Lee’s Jade City, which I reviewed earlier this week: apart from the similarity of their titles, both centre around more-or-less organised crime in non-Western cities and both feature lead characters who are essentially trapped by oppressive sociocultural factors that they are powerless to change. Why then did I enjoy Zoo City so much more?

Former journalist Zinzi December has Acquired Asymbiotic Familiarism: a relatively new, worldwide phenomenon whereby those afflicted with extreme guilt – particularly anyone who has killed, or allowed to be killed, another human being – acquires by apparently inexplicable means an animal from whom they cannot be parted without considerable psychological suffering, as well as low-level magical powers. The animalled are shunned by polite society (the parallel with AIDS is I think never explicitly stated but certainly there), leaving them to cluster in rundown but companionable districts like Zoo City, Johannesburg, where we lay our scene. Having lost her high-flying journalist job to a drug addiction, and gained a Sloth through failing to stop her brother being killed, Zinzi now relies on her supernatural talent for finding lost things to pay back her debt to her former drug dealer, who also has her using her writing skills on 419 scams. Against her better judgement, Zinzi takes on a missing-person case involving a vanished pop singer in the hope of enough money to pay her drug dealer back once and for all.

Whereas Jade City is a novel about forced social conformity, Zoo City rejoices in variety and individuality, the anarchic energies of the city. Zinzi’s former and current professions give her access to most segments of society, from the dispossessed to the moneyed: she talks to teenage pop stars, middle-aged music producers, nightclub bouncers, refugees, street kids; she’s just as likely to end up crawling through a tunnel to escape violence as she is to sit playing video games in a posh house in a gated community. Then there are, of course, the multitude of animals occupying Zoo City, and the wide range of magical powers their humans possess. This diversity is reflected at the level of form too: Zinzi’s first-person narration is punctuated by fictional found documents – newspaper articles, scientific papers, interviews – mostly covering the social effects of AAF and how the animalled are treated around the world.

Particularly interesting, I thought, was the novel’s treatment of magic. This review comments negatively on the lack of a coherent magic system, but to me that lack seems a feature, not a bug. Zinzi visits a sangoma at one point, and despite her scepticism he appears to know a startling amount about her motives for visiting him; the potion he gives her produces vivid visions that reverberate through subsequent events. The sangoma’s traditional magic (which pops up again at the end of the novel) therefore works alongside the scientifically attested magic associated with AAF: the low-level supernatural powers, the link between animal and human, the dark, roiling Undertow that comes for humans whose animals have died. This is an individualistic, capitalist approach to magic: “anything goes so long as it works for you”. That’s ultimately what the riotous diversity of the novel is indexing too – isolating individualism, as against the strong if stifling sense of community we see in Jade City. Zinzi has associates, contacts, acquaintances, people she might loosely call friends, but ultimately she works her case alone; notably, her long-term lover, a refugee called Benoit, is about to leave her after hearing news that his wife is alive.

In fact, we can see the logics of unchecked capitalism operating throughout the novel: Zinzi only takes the case in order to pay her way out of what’s essentially debt slavery; people sell parts of their own animals for use in traditional medicine; high-class (read: expensive) establishments seek to keep the animalled out in order to preserve their tone (and thus the privilege of their customers). And the novel’s villain (spoilers here) is attempting to use his wealth and influence to escape the social stigma of being animalled.

Part of the novel’s curious power lies in the fact that the animals are not, actually, obvious symbols of guilt: they’re not venal or unusually violent or particularly repulsive; they’re just animals, just themselves. Zinzi’s Sloth is quite cute, even. In fact, far from being symbols of guilt, they are, precisely, innocent; free of humanity’s self-interested cruelty and vexed morality. There’s an interesting process of abjection going on here, guilt “thrown off” onto an innocent scapegoat: this is why the Undertow claims those whose animals die, the repressed guilt returning to consume them. This process mirrors the process by which wider society “throws off” its own guilt onto the animalled themselves, forcing them to the edges of acceptability (think of those upper-class establishments that habitually refuse entrance to the animalled).

Of course this is very similar to how capitalist societies treat criminals today, keeping them locked in cycles of imprisonment and reoffending. But in Beukes’ novel criminality is a highly visible trait, cutting across traditional social classes: so Zinzi, a former middle-class journalist who simply failed to prevent a death, is treated the same as a career murderer, or the drug dealer who keeps her in debt slavery. One of the things the novel reveals, then, is the arbitrariness, the injustice, of how we construct and judge criminality.

I’m interested in how the novel’s treatment of guilt responds to discussions of guilt and innocence in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, Zoo City’s most significant intertext. In Pullman’s series, animal daemons are seen by the Church as a manifestation of original sin; the first novel Northern Lights revolves around a plot to separate children from their daemons in order to save their souls. Here again we see a process of abjection, with innocent animals being scapegoated by the Church in an attempt to make up for the doctrine of original sin. Of course innocence is a freighted concept in this context: in the eyes of the Church, animals are associated with the fallen, materialistic world and are thus further from God. But in Pullman’s novel the Church is the villain; its simplistic innocence/sin binary is better replaced by a Blakean innocence/experience dialectic; and so from the reader’s point of view the daemons are innocent, and so we see the scapegoating process more clearly. What Beukes is doing is zooming in on that process, making it explicit. What happens if the daemons really are symbols of guilt? What would that reveal about or bring out in a society?

To revisit the question with which I began this review, then: why did I prefer Zoo City to Jade City? Beukes’ novel contains a profound critique of global capitalism: it shows how privilege and wealth in this system rely on the scapegoating and exploitation of a wide swathe of society. And it does so in a way that deeply troubles our conceptions of innocence and guilt. Jade City is in some ways a critique of its own society; but its fantastical element is not working nearly as hard as Beukes’ is, and doesn’t generate the same imaginative charge. Zoo City is perhaps not a perfect novel, but it’s one that lingers in the mind for a long time afterwards: inventive, riotous and fascinating in every sense.

Review: The Hallowed Hunt

TW: animal death.

Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Hallowed Hunt, a prequel of sorts to The Curse of Chalion (the two novels share a universe, but are set in different times and places and have no character overlap), is another example of that too-rare beast, a fantasy novel deeply interested in religion. This isn’t a surprise: Chalion, which I read a couple of months before The Hallowed Hunt, is a deeply-argued look at free will and the nature of sainthood, cathartic and revelatory. The Hallowed Hunt, I would say, is less ecstatically structured and less piercing, but it’s still carefully observed and intellectually engaged.

Lord Ingrey of the Weald is sent to investigate the murder of the king’s son Prince Boleso, seemingly at the hands of Ijada, a lady-in-waiting who Boleso intended to rape. But the murder scene is unsettling: for one thing, a leopard has been hanged from the ceiling; for another, the prince’s body is covered in strange painted symbols. It seems the prince has been dabbling in ancient shamanic practices which were virtually wiped out when the Weald was invaded by the civilisation featured in The Curse of Chalion, who imposed their own five-god system on the Weald’s inhabitants. As a result, Ijada has been possessed by the spirit of the sacrificed leopard. Unbeknownst to almost anybody else, Ingrey also carries an animal spirit within his soul, having been the subject of a similarly botched ritual as a child. Ingrey and Ijada’s immediate concern is to prevent Ijada being executed for murdering Boleso, and, in the longer term, to work out how Boleso learned about the ritual in the first place and why. What emerges is a tragedy about the death of a culture and a love story about trying to redress that loss.

In fact looking at The Hallowed Hunt as a romance, although not necessarily the most immediately obvious approach, turns out to be a productive way of framing it: because this is a novel whose chief characters are wrestling with the question of how to reconcile two different theological systems, two different cultures and systems of thought. (It’s relevant to note here that Ijada is not only a spiritual heir to the people of the Old Weald – thanks to the leopard – but also an heir in the more traditional sense, being the owner of the Wounded Woods, where they fought their last battle.) That’s exactly how romances function: they’re texts that seek to bring together warring ideas or principles in order to restore order and harmony.

I think what makes this different from The Curse of Chalion is partly that the focus is not so much on the personal experience of religion as on the restoration of a nation’s identity and culture through the rejuvenation of its religion – a theme that’s very relevant to post-colonial discourse, although this isn’t a text that’s actively participating in the modern version of that discourse (in the way that novels like, say, Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire are). I’m a little anxious, though, about Bujold’s choice to render the religion of the Old Weald as a specifically shamanic one (and a violent one at that): it plays into the racist idea that shamanic religions are primitive, and simultaneously into the appropriative line of thought prevalent in overwhelmingly white neopagan communities that there is a “core” version of shamanism that is culturally non-specific and thus up for grabs by anyone who fancies it. (Bujold’s setting is distinctly European; she’s actually said that the Weald is an alternative version of Germany.) It’s a pity that the novel undermines its anticolonial themes in this way.

With that in mind, it did still work for me (and of course your mileage may vary). Bujold’s religious systems are both elegant and vital – unlike many such systems in fantasy, which tend to be over-codified and lacking in that crucial element of mysticism, of ineffableness, that makes religion meaningful in the first place, they feel like evolving traditions, like something real people could believe in. Bujold, I think, properly understands why we are drawn to religion, and it’s refreshing that she makes that understanding the starting point for her novels rather than the be-all and end-all of them. The Hallowed Hunt is a flawed novel, but it’s tackling themes and ideas that not many SFF novels do; and doing so with attention to detail, careful characterisation and satisfying plotting.

Review: The Cockroach

I am not, as I said a couple of weeks ago, really the right reader for literary humour. It’s not something I’m very good at parsing, as someone who reads primarily for plot and symbol rather than tone or character. A work that is entirely humorous – that doesn’t, for instance, take its own comedic premise seriously – will more likely than not read to me as inconsequential and forgettable.

So it is with Ian McEwan’s Brexit satire The Cockroach, a reversal of Kafka’s Metamorphosis in which a cockroach wakes up in the body of the prime minister, bent on enacting a disastrous economic policy with the help of his similarly cockroach-ified cabinet.

I think my main problem with this sort of work is its self-indulgence. Who benefits from a text like this? What does it add to the cultural conversation? It’s not going to change minds or encourage readers to examine their biases and preconceptions; for all its undoubted eloquence, the jokes and comparisons it makes have already been made by any number of left-leaning social media feeds. Boris Johnson may deserve to be likened to a cockroach, and it may make us feel briefly better to do so; but does it actually get us very far? Is this not, in fact, a collective, consolatory wallowing in our middle-class liberal discomfort?

I’d be responding to this differently, I think, if it wasn’t an Ian McEwan book; a book written, in other words, by supposedly one of our finest literary minds. As it is, I expected it to add more to the literary scene than Five on Brexit Island. Give me the rage that bubbles just under the skin of the comedic novels of Terry Pratchett any day; give me the radical socialism of China Mieville; give me something of substance to help me deal with the left’s crisis over this thin, conventional “satire”.

Film Review: Cats

Tom Hooper’s Cats, which we watched with a friend over Zoom in the early stages of lockdown, when we were young and full of hope, is one of those things that defies all logic, laws of physics and critical analysis. Its protagonist is a young cat called Victoria who’s abandoned by her humans and thrown on the tender mercies of the Big Smoke; she meets a gang of cats preparing for the legendary Jellicle Ball, at which one of them will be chosen to ascend (literally) to a new life. It’s a slender thread on which to hang two hours of musical theatre, as each cat introduces themselves to Victoria and sings the song they intend to perform at the Jellicle Ball – most of them poems from T.S. Eliot’s children’s collection Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, set to music with varying degrees of success.

Of course this is all based on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage show of the same name, but since my experience of that is limited to playing “Memory” very badly on the piano as a teenager, I can’t say whether the film’s hallucinogenic qualities are inherited or startlingly original. I can say that this is, unsurprisingly, a bad film. I don’t necessarily mean in the sense that it is plotless, or that the CGI that turns its big-name actors (Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Taylor Swift…) into giant cats with human faces is both ludicrous and vaguely horrifying; although both are true, they are both kind of…features rather than bugs, the things that make Cats what it is. No, what makes it a film that doesn’t work even on its own terms is the songs.

Look, this is a musical, right? Musicals rely on the emotion and sense of atmosphere that music is so good at providing. Especially a musical like Cats, which is not really about anything; it needs that music to provide emotional meaning where there is no semantic meaning. But vast stretches of the film are not even entertainingly bad but actively boring because: fifty per cent of the cast cannot sing; those songs that are competently sung are arranged so as to drain them of any musical interest whatsoever; and the CGI renders the choreography of ninety per cent of the songs airless and uninspiring, obscuring as it does the human effort of the actors involved. It’s like watching Fortnite characters dance: it might be nifty but you don’t want to spend two hours doing it.

I cannot name a single catchy song from the Cats film. Apart from “Macavity”, and I already knew that one. Even the numbers that should be fun – “Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer”, anyone? – are disappointingly affectless. The travesty of Cats is not that it’s campy, contentless and commercialised – it’s that it’s boring, as no musical about singing animals should be.

Review: Tooth and Claw

Published in 2003, the premise of Jo Walton’s fourth novel Tooth and Claw is, quite literally and without exaggeration, “Anthony Trollope with dragons”. Here’s Walton on its genesis:

It has to be admitted that a number of the core axioms of the Victorian novel are just wrong. People aren’t like that. Women, especially, aren’t like that. This novel is the result of wondering what a world would be like if they were, if the axioms of the sentimental Victorian novel were inescapable laws of biology.

The novel begins with the death of Dignified Bon Agornin, an event which precipitates a dispute among his descendants about the distribution of his wealth and body – for dragons gain physical strength, and thus social prestige, by consuming dragonflesh. The landed gentry eat up the ailing dragonets of their tenant farmers, as well as their own children; disputes formal and informal are resolved by fights to the death; male dragons’ lives are a constant fight for dragonflesh and social position. Female dragons, meanwhile, have hands instead of claws, are liable to die if they have too many clutches of eggs too closely together, and, most significantly, blush a permanent red if a male dragon touches them – which is fine if the dragons intend to marry, but if not the female is considered damaged goods.

It’s a clever conceit, literalising the real savagery that lay behind the polite fictions of Victorian society: dragon courtesy dictates, for instance, that dragonflesh should only be consumed in the presence of a parson, allowing the gentry to maintain the fiction that gobbling up sick children is a civilised thing to do. So we have what is on its surface a “light and bright and sparkling”* novel about the fortunes of gentlewomen who need to find husbands (the marriage market is, unsurprisingly, a literal thing in Tooth and Claw, although we never see it up close and personal) and their noble but socially precarious relatives, which is actually interrogating the class and gender assumptions of an era we still venerate.

There are some odd tensions, though, even given this framework, that I’m not sure the novel works out very productively. The substance of the dispute over Bon Agornin’s body is basically that the old dragon intended for his less-established children, Avan, an up-and-coming official in the capital city of Irieth and his two unmarried sisters Haner and Selendra, to take the lion’s share of his body; a provision that his son-in-law Daverak completely ignores, taking the largest share for himself, his wife (Bon Agornin’s eldest daughter) Berend and their dragonets. A furious Avan opens a lawsuit against Daverak, putting his sisters in an awkward position, given that Haner is to live with Daverak and Berend.

The portrayal of Daverak is the source of one of the novel’s odd tensions: he is a bully who abuses his social power, eating the healthy dragonets of his tenant farmers as well as elderly, ailing or disobedient servants, indirectly killing his wife by forcing her to produce too many eggs too soon and eventually making Haner’s safety and dowry contingent on her cooperation with him against Avan. The story of the novel is in an important way the story of how Daverak gets his comeuppance; how this rotten apple is pruned from the tree of dragon society. But the fact that Daverak is a monster distracts from the fact that dragon society is itself monstrously unequal; Daverak’s punishment for abusing his power in dramatic ways doesn’t undo that fact. It’s like – the novel ultimately asks us, at the level of plot, to focus on individual power rather than collective power structures.

What makes this particularly strange is that Walton explicitly points up the inequality in draconic (and by extension Victorian) power structures beyond even the literalisation of savagery inherent in her premise. Haner’s first-hand observation of how Daverak treats his servants radicalises her, and she becomes interested in a movement working towards easing the lot of the serving class. But within the novel her interest is treated as an eccentricity, and the one time she actually does anything meaningful about it – she goes to meet the author of a radical book on the subject – operates only as an inciting moment for the novel’s dramatic denouement (Daverak believes she has actually gone to meet Avan to conspire against him, and locks her up in her bedroom). The novel closes shortly afterwards, in Shakespearean-comedic fashion, with Avan, Selendra and Haner all safely partnered with good matches; no further mention of actual social change. I suppose this is a weakness of the Victorian novels on which Tooth and Claw is modelled, but it’s not lampshaded in a way that would make the repetition of that weakness ironic; it’s just a weakness.

I kind of want to emphasise that this is quite a productive tension, though, in that Tooth and Claw gives the reader a lot to think with when it comes to power relations in Victorian (and modern) texts: how drives toward social justice are defanged and folded into the status quo; how the law works to uphold existing social structures; how monstrous power structures perpetuate themselves. Plus, “Victorian novel with dragons” is just fun, no matter how you slice it. Tooth and Claw isn’t a perfect book but it’s a surprisingly meaty one – I kind of wish more SFF authors would try this sort of thing in a way that isn’t completely superficial.

 

*Jane Austen on Pride and Prejudice

Review: The Paganism Reader

Like many of the books on paganism and related subjects that I’ve reviewed here recently, The Paganism Reader, edited by Chas S. Clifton and Graham Harvey, was a loan from a friend, now returned. I don’t have it here to refer to, in other words, which is a little sad – I’d have liked to pay tribute to its comprehensiveness by being comprehensive and thorough myself.

In any case, The Paganism Reader brings together a selection of texts that have informed various flavours and philosophies of paganism in the last century or so. The works range over a much larger span of time, though, from Apuleius’ Golden Ass (160-170AD) to a couple of remarkably down-to-earth essays by modern Pagans: “Finding your way in the woods: the art of conversation with the Genius Loci” by Barry Patterson and “Entertaining faeries” by Gordon Maclellan were particular favourites. (It seems, however, that Maclellan is a white man calling himself a “shaman”, gah. It’s worth noting, too, that there’s an essay in the book entitled “What happened to Western shamanism?”, although I don’t remember anything about it.)

The book also contains extracts from Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land – famously the inspiration behind the Church of All Worlds – the “Piper at the Gates of Dawn” chapter from Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, the entire Book of the Law by Aleister Crowley (which is a trip, let me tell you) and work by Margaret Murray, Doreen Valiente, Robert Graves and Gerald Gardner, among much else. Another of my favourites was “Initiation by ordeal” by Judy Harrow – a look at military service as a modern-day initiation ceremony, a marking of the border between childhood and adulthood, examining the ways it succeeds and fails in this capacity.

I don’t know enough about the field to say with any accuracy how comprehensive or balanced this book is as a look at paganism and its sources, but its list of contributors is certainly impressive, and there’s a lot of texts here I feel grateful to have had ready access to – things like The Book of the Law which I would never have sought out on its own. It’s not really an introductory text: it won’t give you an accessible overview of what paganism looks like now. As a collection of sources, though, it’s wide-ranging, useful and enlightening. I wrote recently about how I’d like pagan authors and their readers to be much more mindful of where their traditions and beliefs are coming from, to avoid appropriating things that aren’t ours to take; having The Paganism Reader on the shelf strikes me as a great place to start.

Review: League of Dragons

So here it is: the last in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, an alternative history of the Napoleonic wars, with dragons.

League of Dragons opens with Napoleon’s forces fleeing through frozen Russia after a catastrophic defeat at the hands of the allied armies. It’s a major victory for everyone who doesn’t want to see Napoleon ruling over Europe, but it’s not the end of the war – especially when Napoleon’s dragon Lien steals a precious egg belonging to Temeraire (the series’ draconic co-protagonist) and fire-breathing Iskierka. The egg, and the creature that hatches from it, could be key to the war effort, and is in any case personally important to Temeraire and Iskierka – so of course it’s up to Temeraire’s Captain Laurence and his crew to get it back.

It’s actually a pretty episodic novel for a series ender. There’s the bitter trek across Russia at the beginning of the book; a stay in a peasant’s house; the rescue expedition itself; a spell in England while Laurence tries to win the allegiance of dragon captains who think poorly of him; and a lot of battlefield action, which involves plenty of military strategy and planning.

The theme running through much of the novel is that of Laurence’s unbending concept of honour: when is it useful, and when is it dangerous? For him, it’s one of the things that keeps military society together: having strict social codes and hierarchies avoids dangerous dissensions in military units, and that’s something Laurence struggles with when multiple dragon captains are placed under his command despite his historical trial for treason. But it can also lead him outside the very social codes it’s established to protect – as when he becomes involved in a duel with a pampered aristocrat; duels are frowned upon for dragon captains because it potentially robs the army of a valuable weapon (one dragon being much more valuable than one person).

This is a discussion that’s been happening throughout the series, though, and I’m not convinced League of Dragons advances it particularly. The episodic form of the novel is potentially more interesting – although, again, previous novels have done this (notably Throne of Jade, one of my favourites). I see lots of Goodreads commenters complaining that League of Dragons isn’t very climactic, but maybe that’s the point? For me, this isn’t a series whose best points are made by big battles and military strategy – it’s about relationships and the different kinds of allegiances people have to each other and their countries and societies, and how and where those allegiances clash. So it makes sense that this last novel would focus on putting its protagonist in all sorts of uncomfortable situations and seeing how he copes with them.

I do think that this novel has less of a focus on colonialism and other social justice issues than the series as a whole does. We see comparatively little of Laurence’s female crew member Emily Roland, and still less of her mother, Admiral Roland. Having said that, we do get flights of Chinese dragons and Napoleon’s wife, the Incan Empress Anahuarque – if not the detailed engagement with their societies that some of the earlier novels have delivered. It’s still great to see these cultures written into Novik’s universe in such a fundamental way, though.

I don’t know that this series particularly stands out for me. I’m fond of it; I love the gentle, caring interactions we get between Laurence and Temeraire (even if I think Novik infantilises the supposedly sentient dragons a little too much to make their case for independence and self-governance entirely credible). And I like the way it engages with Europe’s colonialist history and rewrites marginalised groups into what is in part a military comedy of manners (Laurence’s crew features at various points in the story a Black boy, a female crew member and a canonically gay man). I enjoy its discussion of honour and Novik’s careful depiction of her characters’ various relationships. I think it’s working hard, and largely succeeds in what it’s trying to do. Which – well, I don’t think there’s that much more you can ask for from a series.