Review: The Unreal and the Real Volume 2

“We live in capitalism,” said Ursula le Guin in 2014, accepting the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. “Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.”

I thought of these words often as I read The Unreal and the Real Volume 2, a collection of le Guin’s short speculative stories (the first volume of the set collects her realist shorts, apparently); of the hard and necessary work of imagining alternatives to capitalism, to the way we live now, in order, hopefully, to construct better ways of being. Spanning forty years of le Guin’s career, the stories here are collectively engaged in that work: imagining alternative societies and models of being-in-the-world.

We begin with le Guin’s most famous, and most obviously polemical, story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, a parable about complicity, exploitation and moral responsibility. It’s not so much the central dilemma of this piece – is the suffering of a single child too high a price to pay for the happiness of a whole society? – which interests me: although it’s powerfully stated, it’s not a question le Guin explores in much depth; once the point has been made there is not that much more to be said. What makes this story worth rereading is the way le Guin describes the people of Omelas. They are happy without being simple, she says; and then:

“The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist; a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain.”

Along with the imagination of alternative ways of existence, we might consider this an organising principle of the collection. Although the stories in this volume are not all happy – not by a long shot – le Guin is nevertheless unafraid to describe joy where her characters encounter it, as they not-infrequently do. Joy in the specific: there are as many types of fulfilment and contentment here as there are of pain and suffering. There is an optimism and a humanity to le Guin’s work in this volume that engenders, even in these terrible times, a hope that feels substantial and weighty and true.

“The Shobies’ Story” is a case in point. Part of the interconnected set of works known as le Guin’s Hainish Cycle, it’s about a group of people who volunteer to be the first higher-order lifeforms to try out an experimental faster-than-light technology. They must first establish a shared bond through story, in order to operate effectively as a crew; when the new technology perturbs their perception of reality so that each of them experiences a different version of events, they have to navigate back to that cohesion in order to return home. Again, it’s not so much this story’s plot that remains with me, as the quiet joy the characters experience through sharing their own stories with each other; they all come from very different cultural backgrounds and societies, and yet, as a crew, they are able to achieve a comfortable equilibrium that sees them through a fundamental upheaval in how they experience the world. It’s a warm story that speaks to the joy of family and togetherness.

We see a similarly peaceful joy among the female residents of the planet Eleven-Soro in another Hainish story, “Solitude”. Eleven-Soro is a matriarchal society where each woman lives alone, interacting with her neighbours only obliquely, cultivating a life of quietness and inner stillness. (The men, meanwhile, are banished to the wilderness in their teenage years, to form violent and lawless gangs; if they survive, they lead hermit-like existences, visited occasionally by horny women.) For the anthropologist who comes to study Eleven-Soro, this extreme introversion is a barrier to her research; for her young daughter, it is a haven. “Solitude” is not really a warm story. It’s about the splintering of a family and the difficulties of cultural assimilation. But at its heart is the joy of the introvert who’s found a place where she can avoid the pressure of other people’s regard.

“Nine Lives” takes a different view of solitude and self-reliance. A piece that’s less anthropologically focused and more hard SF adventure story, it’s about a group of ten clones who are sent out to relieve two non-cloned humans on a mining planet. The clones have been carefully trained and conditioned to work seamlessly as a team, no outside input needed, but when nine of them are killed in an accident, the one left standing has to work out how to be a person in the world again; a person able to rely on, and support, people who are not versions of himself. Like “The Shobies’ Story”, “Nine Lives” is about the life-saving grace of community and human connection, the importance of participating fully in the world.

This life-saving grace is what gives “Betrayals”, another Hainish story, its gut-wrenching power. Its protagonist Yoss lives what looks at first like a self-sufficient life alone with her two pets. But when she finds a disgraced political leader ill in the mud near her home, she feels compelled to care for him, and out of a sort of mutual cantankerousness comes a relationship built on respect, on regard for each other’s safety (Yoss’ care is later reciprocated when her home burns down), and on an appreciation of each other as people, as humans. Here, again, we see the joy that can be found in connection and community, and the way that that joy can move us past failed politics.

Similarly, “Sur” imagines a group of women who make the first trek to the South Pole – before Amundsen’s successful mission and Scott’s doomed one – and then don’t tell anyone; it’s a corrective and a rebuke to the patriarchal, imperial impulse that demands glory for glory’s sake. “Achievement is smaller than men think”: it’s enough for this close-knit group of women that they reached the South Pole, taking joy in their determination, their camaraderie, in the adventure itself.

As in any short story collection, there are misfires. “The First Contact with the Gorgonids” (1991) has aged extremely poorly: although satirical in intent, its conflation of Aboriginal Australians and actual aliens centres the white gaze uncomfortably, and the overall tone of the piece is, hmm, dated. Similarly, “The Poacher” makes for slightly enraging reading post #MeToo, with its seemingly incorrigibly horny protagonist.

Other stories are inoffensive but one-note: “Mazes”, a piece about a sentient lab animal or alien who is fatally unable to communicate with the human scientist experimenting on them; “The Ascent of the North Face”, another humorous story about a group of people making an epic climb of what turns out to be an ordinary house; “The Wife’s Story”, a “punchline story” that has little to offer once you’ve read it the first time round. There are several stories – “The Fliers of Gy”, “The Silence of the Asonu” and “The Author of the Acacia Seeds” – that describe cultures that are different from our own in fundamental ways, and look at how those differences play out in unexpected ways both within and outside those cultures. These are thought-provoking texts that clearly build on the themes of the collection – particularly in their reimagining of what being a person in the world can look like – but, being essentially descriptions, they lack the dynamism, and thus emotional power, of the more narrative pieces in the collection. (“The Matter of Seggri” is an honourable exception in this category, partly because its imagined society is described through fictional source-texts that are narrative in themselves, and partly because its interrogation of gender roles is so immediately and sharply relevant in our own world.)

“Semley’s Necklace” is more successful at examining competing understandings of what the world is like: its titular heroine initially appears to live in a sort of Old Norse fairytale universe, but the devastating consequences of her quest to retrieve a family heirloom reveals that the underpinnings of her universe are far more Einsteinian. The story has a wonderful doubleness – both fairytale and scientific readings remain viable throughout – which demonstrates the mutability of what we think of as truth, of what we think of as ultimately inescapable. Misfires and minor works notwithstanding, it’s this impression of mutability that the collection leaves us with: the idea that there is more, more to imagine and experience and enjoy than the logics of capitalism or the demands of literary fashion will allow. “Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings,” le Guin’s National Book Foundation speech continued. Absorbing, resonant and wise, the pieces collected in The Unreal and the Real Volume 2 together unlock the imaginative space we so desperately need to do just that.

Review: The Icarus Girl

CW: stillbirth.

Written when the author was just 18, Helen Oyeyemi’s striking debut novel The Icarus Girl draws on Yoruba folklore and Western Gothic imagery to spruce up its treading of what’s ultimately fairly familiar thematic grounds. Its young protagonist, Jessamy, is the eight-year-old daughter of a Nigerian mother and a white British father, who, on a visit to her family in Nigeria, befriends a girl named Titiola, or TillyTilly. No-one else can see TillyTilly, and she can do apparently impossible things – early in the book, she opens a locked fairground gate and entices Jess inside. Is TillyTilly real – perhaps the vengeful spirit of Jess’ stillborn twin – or is she the product of Jess’ imagination, a double she’s hallucinating to deal with the vicissitudes of childhood and her own doubled cultural identity?

This isn’t a question the novel is interested in providing a definitive answer to; indeed, it depends for much of its menace and power on TillyTilly’s uncertain ontological status. Instead, Gothically, it uses TillyTilly as a device for exploring liminal states of being – between childhood and adulthood, between one culture and another, between life and death (as epitomised by stillborn Fern), between imagination and reality. The unknowability of minds that are separate to one’s own is a key theme: like many a YA heroine, Jess is profoundly isolated by her experience of TillyTilly, which her parents cannot access and do not understand. Thus one of the things that’s going on in The Icarus Girl is a look at that point in childhood when the child becomes unknowable to their parents; when, in other words, they start growing up. Jess is stranded between multiple identities, multiple constructions of her self – many of them imposed upon her by others – and those identities manifest in TillyTilly, an engaging and yet ultimately threatening doppelganger who represents Jess’ alienation from these aspects of her selfhood. To put it another way, Jess’ perspective, into which we are locked for the majority of the novel, diverges significantly from what her parents imagine it to be, and TillyTilly with her ambivalent status embodies the gap between expectation and reality.

So there’s plenty of Gothic resonance going on here, and I enjoy very much how Oyeyemi hybridises the Gothic’s historic interest in doubleness and duality with Yoruba folklore about twins: this merging of Western and Nigerian influences is a sort of distorted echo of the difficulty Jess has in reconciling her two cultural heritages. Nevertheless, I can’t help feeling that the novel lacks ambition somewhere along the line: it’s hardly uncommon for writers, especially of fiction for children, to turn to models of duality in dealing with questions of biracial cultural identity; and once Oyeyemi has established the concept of TillyTilly as this ambiguously threatening figure she doesn’t develop it much. Jess and TillyTilly’s behaviour escalates, their relationship becomes increasingly contentious and dangerous, but it’s a difference in kind, not in degree. Just an additional extra wrinkle, an extra layer of complexity, might have brought greater specificity and force to a text whose concerns, as it is, remain somewhat generic. The Icarus Girl is undoubtedly an atmospheric and compelling novel; but it’s very much a first effort, paling as it does in comparison with Oyeyemi’s formally and thematically experimental later work.

Review: A Red-Rose Chain

The ninth entry in Seanan McGuire’s Toby Daye series, A Rose-Red Chain introduces a welcome breath of fresh air into what was in danger of becoming a rather repetitive collection of plots, motifs and themes. Instead of charging off into mortal physical peril as she usually does, changeling PI Toby is in this instalment tasked with diplomatic negotiations: in this case, persuading the belligerent King Rhys of the Kingdom of Silences not to wage war against her monarch, Queen Arden in the Mists.

She is, naturally, monumentally bad at this.

Putting Toby on the political stage is an interesting choice: although previous instalments have shown her to be well-connected – she’s dating a King of Cats, her squire is the (disguised) Crown Prince of the Westlands, she’s on first-name terms with the Luidaeg, a Firstborn who terrifies pretty much all of Faerie – her adventures up to this point have tended to treat her as a powerful individual rather than someone moving through a web of influence and connections. They’ve been about her ability to investigate disappearances, to draw on contacts for information, to fight, to use her blood-working magic. We haven’t really seen her try to change Faerie in any kind of systematic way.

It’s quite fun, then, seeing her navigate the intricacies of a strange court, fending off the icy hostility of the pureblood fae who believe that she, being a changeling, is worse than nothing. The plot, as is usual for this series, rattles on at a good pace, bringing new revelations at every turn. Magical mutilation! Goblin fruit! Changeling cats! All good stuff. The climax does inevitably involve Toby suffering catastrophic injuries that would kill anyone else, but for the most part there is refreshingly little blood.

On the other hand, placing Toby in a diplomatic context does kind of reveal the paucity of the series’ political world – or, more specifically, Toby’s political imagination. Toby’s soapbox issue is changeling rights, and, given that the series hews very closely to her point of view, it’s also the primary political issue we encounter in Faerie. But Toby’s efforts to improve the lot of changelings, most of whom are very much less privileged than she, are for the most part reactive rather than proactive: she’ll help specific changelings, usually magically, when the plot gives her the opportunity to do so, but she rarely takes the initiative to alter changelings’ status in fae society in general. (It doesn’t really help that one of the main ways the series indicates which characters are sympathetic is whether they are nice to changelings or not: the action Toby habitually takes against corrupt fae rulers therefore does technically improve the lot of changelings, but that’s not usually her immediate motivation in deposing them.)

This is a problem because Toby’s trajectory throughout the series has been about her coming from a place of oppression – her changeling status has seen her abused by the pureblood community and, at the start of the first book, turned into a fish for 14 years, leaving her at the very edge of both fae and human society when she’s restored – to a place of privilege: she’s built a family of sorts around her, cementing her place in the fae social order. As readers we’ve been conditioned to care about changelings and to be outraged at their treatment, because we care about Toby and all that she has lost. In this context, the loss of the urgency with which the earlier books approached changeling rights, Toby’s failure to give the changelings behind her a hand up, feels jarring, at odds with our understanding of Toby as a champion of the oppressed and an all-round good person.

Of course, not every novel has to be a trenchant political treatise; it just so happens that politics and ideas are a big part of what I read for, and a big part of what I remember and find notable about what I read. The Toby Daye novels are fun, light reads that make full use of the resonances of Celtic folklore, and A Red-Rose Chain is a strong entry in the series. That it’s not as politically conscious as I personally would like it to be is not wholly its fault.

Review: The Winter Long

You don’t have to read very much of Seanan McGuire’s urban fantasy series about the changeling PI Toby Daye to realise that it’s centrally concerned with blood. Both literally and figuratively: Toby’s investigations are helped by her ability to decipher people’s thoughts and experiences by “riding” – tasting – their blood; and, on a more metaphorical level, the bonds of family and inheritance are extremely important to the action of the series.

The Winter Long, the eighth Toby Daye novel, is no exception. The book sees the return of Simon Torquill, the man who at the beginning of the series turned our heroine into a fish for fourteen years, dooming her to the loss of her mortal family. Understandably, Toby is less than thrilled when he knocks on her door, but his reappearance leads her to some revelations about her powerful mother, Amandine, and about her own place in Faerie’s highly stratified social structure, continuing the process of growing into her social role that the series as a whole charts.

What makes these novels stand out as urban fantasy is the way they exploit the existing potential of myth and legend – specifically Celtic myth and legend – to examine themes of family and belonging, rather than simply using them for aesthetic flavour (as, say, Katherine Addison’s The Angel of the Crows does with steampunk). Inheritance and dynasty are key concerns of Celtic myth: I’m thinking particularly of The Mabinogion, with its four branches woven around the family of Pryderi, the king of Dyfed, its emphasis on lost children, unhappy marriages, heirships and sibling loyalty. The fae in such stories, with their strange bargains and arcane conditions (think of Pwyll trading places with Arawn, lord of Annwn, for a year and a day), often stand in for the fear of the other, the outsider; the people whose traditions and customs you do not know, who you might end up mortally offending accidentally. So questions of belonging naturally attach themselves to stories about the fae too. As a result, McGuire’s series feels fundamentally steeped in fae lore and folktale in a way that many urban fantasy novels don’t manage, lending it surprising resonance and depth. There’s real darkness and peril here.

It does have to be said that, considered as an individual installment, The Winter Long is not particularly memorable: even after having read an exhaustive account of the novel’s plot at the October Daye Wiki to prompt my memory, I still don’t have a good sense of the shape of the book as a whole: its narrative arc, the fairytale motifs it’s working with, its overall aesthetic goals. That’s less of a problem with a novel like this, which sits slap-bang in the heart of a long, ongoing series: the Toby Daye books aren’t really meant to be read as standalones, despite the work McGuire does to orient new readers in each volume. But, ultimately, this is a novel that feels more like it’s doing set-up for later installments (despite being structurally complete: this isn’t a classic case of Middle Book Syndrome) than a text with an identity of its own.

Review: Black Sun

Is representation enough? It’s a question I’ve been turning over more and more lately, as mainstream SFF continues to wrestle with its patriarchal, colonial legacy, and as my own personal honeymoon period with SFF that looks beyond the straight white hegemony passes and (hopefully) matures into something more thoughtful. And it’s a question I find myself asking when it comes to thinking about Rebecca Roanhorse’s third novel (and first in a new series) Black Sun, a text which draws on the mythologies of the pre-colonial Americas to create a thriving multicultural fantasy world where queerness of multiple flavours is normalised – a world, in fact, that looks nothing like the medieval European paradigms so much of fantasy is based on. As someone who very much enjoys the work of Becky Chambers – which is pretty much all representation, like, queer representation is pretty much the Thing those books are doing – I’d have expected it to be right up my street. But, in fact, I have basically…nothing to say about it.

That’s partly because, while the worldbuilding eschews the conventions of Western fantasy, the plot structure is thoroughly familiar. Basically: the blind priest Serapio returns from exile to his parents’ country, Tova, in order to restore the Crow God to his rightful place in society, aided by Xiala, a larger-than-life bisexual sailor with mysterious marine powers. Meanwhile, the Sun Priest of Tova faces resistance from her fellow priests and the people of Tova in her attempts to reform the priesthood. This is a quest story, with a bit of tragico-political scheming thrown in; the characters are stock types who are, yes, queer where once they might not have been (although I think we can all agree that the promiscuous bisexual is as old as, like, the concept of bisexuality, and as for bisexual sailors – ), but not in a way that interestingly queers the story Roanhorse is telling. I’m not saying that queerness always has to have a plot purpose, just that – I’m struggling to find anything to grab onto in Black Sun, thematically.

The conclusion I’m reaching for, here, is that there’s not a lot going for Black Sun except for its inclusion of non-Western mythologies and characters, and the queerness of those characters. These are, to be clear, valuable things. And there are a couple of stand-out details that show how Roanhorse’s world is altered by default queerness: Xiala’s people, the Teek, are a deeply misandrist society who see Xiala’s attraction to men as shameful and sordid. That’s genuinely quite interesting. But we don’t spend any time among the Teek, and so the novel’s structure and plot are not markedly affected by their presence. Roanhorse doesn’t seem to have anything to say about how default queerness might alter how society works, or how a culture constructed around non-Western mythologies might tell stories differently.

Black Sun is not a badly written novel. It’s strongly plotted, well-paced; the prose is competent and readable. But it’s not memorable. It has nothing really original to say to match the originality of bringing these pre-colonial American mythologies into a work of commercial fantasy. Simple representation is, for me, no longer enough to make a text exciting and invigorating and challenging. Diverse characters deserve diverse storytelling, narratives that question and trouble literary conventions. For me, Black Sun doesn’t achieve that.

Review: The Dollmaker

This review contains spoilers.

Nina Allan’s unsettling 2019 novel The Dollmaker is one of those books that confounds readerly expectations at nearly every turn. It’s the story of two doll collectors, Andrew and Bramber, who strike up a correspondence when Andrew answers a classified of Bramber’s asking for information about the fictional 20th century dollmaker Ewa Chaplin. After some months of this correspondence – of which we’re given Bramber’s letters, but never Andrew’s – Andrew finds himself infatuated, and sets off on a journey into the rural south of England to visit Bramber, who, as we know from clues in her letters that Andrew doesn’t seem to have picked up on, lives in a group home for people with mental illnesses. Interleaved with Bramber’s letters and Andrew’s first-person narration of his journey are a number of dark little fairytales purportedly by Ewa Chaplin that feature uncanny echoes of events in Andrew’s life. The figure of a dwarf, in particular – Andrew is just four feet nine inches high – crops up again and again, usually in the context of a forbidden love for a queen.

It’s hard to know what to make of these echoes, and Allan seems keen to uphold this uncertainty rather than resolve it: Chaplin’s stories are neither comfortingly hived-off from the main narrative, in which case we could read them as metaphorical only, nor literally connected to it on the level of plot. Similarly, Allan deflates our readerly expectations of Andrew’s story: his journey to meet Bramber against her will feels like it will end in disappointment and possibly murder (as Abigail Nussbaum points out), but instead there is a sense almost of anti-climax, a refusal to resolve the story either way. The future remains open for this pair: maybe something will come of this unlikely meeting of minds, but then again maybe it will not.

I think there is meant to be something redemptive and perhaps humanising about this uncertainty: both Andrew and Bramber are damaged, Andrew by an abusive relationship in his young adulthood and a lifetime of bullying and discrimination based on his stature, and Bramber by what she sees as her childhood betrayal of her mother. Their tentative rapprochement at the end perhaps signals an entry for both of them into a more moderate mode of life, one marked by the small compromises and uncertainties that we see in real, healthy relationships, especially at their beginnings, rather than the grand Gothic dramas of Ewa Chaplin’s stories or the hideousness that characterised both of their childhoods. An entry, in other words, into the world of what we might consider literary realism, out of the world of high romance or crime drama or horror story, all the genres that the novel as a whole flirts with.

Which is certainly an interesting thing to do: a process of de-fictionalisation, almost, of making these characters no longer characters who need to be in a story, and making that a triumph for both of them. But as a reader I personally found it unsatisfying: I wanted the text to cohere, to suggest possible meanings a little more forcefully, rather than leaving absolutely everything open and unresolved. That said, I wouldn’t hesitate to read more of Allan’s work: The Dollmaker may have failed for me on the whole, but it was at least an interesting failure.

Review: Chimes at Midnight

Chimes at MidnightSeven novels in, Seanan McGuire’s Toby Daye series has settled comfortably into its groove. A pinch of sedition, a dollop of mortal peril, a soupcon of familial angst and a sprinkling of underbaked civil rights commentary, all undergirded by Toby’s pleasingly irreverent voice and some deftly handled folklore – one of the pleasures of reading these books is undoubtedly their familiarity. Although our heroine’s personal circumstances do change as the series progresses, the novels’ plots, themes and tone remain essentially the same. Once you have read one of them, you have, more or less, read them all.

In Chimes at Midnight, our favourite changeling PI/hero of the realm takes aim at the goblin fruit flooding the fae markets of San Francisco: a highly desirable drug for pureblood fae, it’s invariably fatal for changelings, who become addicted to it and forget to eat. When she discovers, however, that her monarch the Queen of the Mists is actually running the trade, and that moreover the said Queen is almost certainly an imposter, she sets her mind to finding the rightful Queen and deposing the tyrant.

For all Toby’s natural distrust of authority, and penchant for overthrowing royalty, it occurs to me that the series’ sentiment isn’t quite as republican as it appears: as with many fantasy texts since The Lord of the Rings, hereditary legitimacy is equated with suitability for governance. The key adjective associated with the Queen of the Mists once we learn that she’s an imposter is “false”: she’s a villain because she took a throne that wasn’t hers to take. She’s also unpredictable, bigoted and cruel where her replacement, the true Queen Arden, is, per future books in the series, reasonable, just and interested in changeling rights.

I’m not saying, of course, that every text has to hew to a given standard of ideological purity; frankly that’s just a recipe for bad art. I’m merely interested in the hidden generic assumptions of popular works and how they pull against apparently progressive content. Perhaps it’s in the nature of series fiction to be consolatory rather than exploratory: that is, as I said at the beginning of this review, one reason why people return to series, after all, because it’s comforting to know what you’re going to encounter. The Toby Daye series is a pleasure to read: McGuire’s world has enough texture to make it feel real and complex and messy; Toby herself, while somewhat broadly characterised, is sufficiently relatable that her relationships with her found family are genuinely heartwarming; the careful use of folklore and fairy tale gives the whole thing the ring of truth. It’s a pleasure. But not a very substantial one.

Review: One Salt Sea

This review contains spoilers.

One Salt SeaFive books in, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that Seanan McGuire’s Toby Daye series is very interested in family – both the nuclear kind and the found kind. It’s an interest that’s been present throughout the series: in its procedural focus on biological parentage and the power carried in the blood; in the fairy lord Sylvester’s complicated relationship with his traumatised daughter Rayseline; in the importance that fae culture places on which of Oberon’s wives everyone is descended from. But it’s brought into sharp focus in One Salt Sea when Toby must investigate the kidnapping of three children – one of them her own estranged daughter Gillian – in order to save the fae kingdom from all-out war.

Toby has a lot to lose by this point: having begun the series in Rosemary and Rue as an outsider, lost to her human family because of Faerie and thus too angry at the fae to associate with them any more, she’s spent five books forming social and familial connections that cement her place in fae society. Many of these bonds are bonds of obligation, the fae being big on promises and formal reciprocal arrangements: Toby has sworn an oath to serve her lord Sylvester; she and the sea-witch the Luidaeg are connected by a somewhat convoluted system of favours and debts; and by the end of One Salt Sea she has officially taken on the young fae noble Quentin as her squire. It’s clear that these essentially legal relationships are founded in real love and respect, although this isn’t always the case: for instance, Toby’s ultimate allegiance technically lies with the unstable Queen of the Mists, for whom she has only contempt.

Her less formalised relationships aren’t any less strong: look at her sister of sorts, May, the Fetch who was supposed to be an omen of her death and ended up moving in when she failed to die. And by One Salt Sea Toby has not one but two possible love interests: Connor, the Selkie whose marriage to Rayseline has been dissolved because of Rayseline’s instability; and Tybalt, the King of Cats, whose relationship with Toby has been shaky in the past but is gradually becoming stronger.

That last thing is key, I think: one of the things that powers this series is this process of Toby settling herself into a new family and society, forming new links over time. These relationships feel lived in, and Toby feels embedded in her world as a result.

This embeddedness ties in to the theme of heroism that I wrote about in my review of the fourth novel in the series, Late Eclipses. It’s clear that Toby’s connections to her community enable her heroism: they give her the emotional resources to protect those she loves at her own expense, and to go on when they’re removed from her life. Towards the end of the novel, Toby saves Gillian’s life by doing something that will mean she’ll never see her again: their estrangement will be permanent. It’s a devastating choice, but it’s a choice that she survives because of the support she gets from her friends and found family. Similarly, when one of her love interests dies at the end of the book, we get the sense that she’ll go on despite her grief because of the people she still has around her – unlike many a romantic heroine.

This is quite a nuanced look at the important role that community plays in allowing individuals to do good, and it’s one of the things that marks the Toby Daye series out from a lot of urban fantasy, which tends to be rather individualistic in focus. I do think the novels continue to suffer from repetitiveness – there’s a lot of running around that doesn’t correspond to actual plot development – and McGuire’s writing isn’t as polished as it could be. But this sense of groundedness in a specific community, a specific world with its own social rules, means it’s a series that I’ll keep returning to when I’m in the mood for a light, fun, satisfying read.

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: 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.