Review: A Guide to Folktales in Fragile Dialects

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

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

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

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

Review: An Artificial Night

This review contains spoilers.

An Artificial NightThe third novel in Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series, An Artificial Night is I think the first to retool recognisable folkloric intertexts, rather than simply refer to mythological concepts and fairytale tropes. Tam Lin and the Wild Hunt are both in evidence here, as half-fae PI Toby is called on to rescue missing fae and human children from the fearsome Blind Michael and his Ride, which transforms its victims in terrifying ways.

At the most basic level, Blind Michael and his Ride, like their folkloric counterparts the Wild Hunt, represent the wild wood, the untameable forest, all that is dark and unknowable about nature; if we wanted to get Lacanian about it, we could describe the periodic return of the Ride as an unavoidable irruption of the Real into the life of Faerie, which, with its emphasis on arcane rules, promises and rituals is highly Symbolic. Named explicitly as a hero multiple times in the text, Toby becomes in this novel a guardian of the Symbolic order and of the fae culture that stands in opposition to the wild forces of nature. (This contrast between nature and culture, Real and Symbolic, is of course a deeply familiar one in Western literature: it’s there in almost every fairy and folk tale, including Tam Lin itself.)

But, as the only character in An Artificial Night who passes regularly between our world and that of Blind Michael, Toby is also a liminal, in-between figure, and we can see this playing out in other aspects of her characterisation too. She’s a changeling, half-human and half-fae, an in-between status that pureblood fae see as dangerous, an indicator of future madness, as we saw in the previous novel A Local Habitation. She’s also someone to whom the normal laws of Faerie don’t quite seem to apply: she’s friends with the sea-witch the Luidaeg, who terrifies most of Faerie’s other inhabitants; when we first met her in Rosemary and Rue, she was choosing to live as a human, ignoring, to some extent, the conventions of alliegance that govern Faerie. In An Artificial Night, moreover, she’s also revealed as someone who hovers between life and death, thanks to a death wish manifesting as a hero complex.

This liminality enables McGuire to explore the contradictions inherent in Toby’s psyche, and thus by way of identification that of the reader. Toby’s heroism, as we have seen, makes her a representative of order and of culture; but her potential madness and her death wish are reflections of something darker; they show her affinity with Blind Michael’s nonsense-realm, ruled by the logic of children’s rhymes, expressions of the blind forces of nature and of the Real. (To enter Blind Michael’s realm, Toby is turned into a child, perhaps representing a return to the Lacanian stage of development that precedes the Symbolic.) Her destruction of Blind Michael, then, represents her overcoming those forces within herself, and her re-identification with the Symbolic order.

This isn’t exactly groundbreaking, as a textual strategy; as I’ve said, you can find similar story-structures in pretty much every Western fairytale. But, perhaps paradoxically, that’s what makes it work: McGuire’s identified what makes these intensely familiar (to Western readers) stories tick, and transported them into a modern milieu, with a nicely conflicted New Adult-ish heroine; the result is vastly more resonant than a lot of fairytale retellings and urban fantasy (Sookie Stackhouse, I’m looking at you). It’s not going to set the world on fire, or inspire new insights into the human condition; and Toby’s hero complex can be downright annoying, as when she returns to Blind Michael’s realm after being dramatically rescued from that very place by a phalanx of devoted friends. But it is, on the whole, very readable. I’d happily read it again, even.

Review: A Local Habitation

This review contains spoilers.

A Local HabitationMurder mystery and techno-gothic are odd bedfellows, as are fairies and computers, but Seanan McGuire achieves an interesting synthesis in A Local Habitation. This, the second novel in her immensely popular urban fantasy series following the half-human, half-fae PI October “Toby” Daye, sees our protagonist sent by her liege Sylvester to the fae County of Tamed Lightning to check up on Sylvester’s niece January, who’s been out of contact for a couple of months. January’s outfit turns out to be a tech company where people are dying in mysterious ways; they’ve been keeping it quiet so as not to draw the attention of local fiefdoms who’d be more than happy to move in on a struggling independent County. Now Toby’s on the scene, it’s up to her to find out who’s behind the murders before the situation gets substantially worse.

With a steadily mounting body count and a closed circle of suspects, A Local Habitation is in some senses as classical a murder mystery as it gets. Its structuring principle, like that of all murder mystery, is about restoring order by closing down violent, irrational tendencies within the County of Tamed Lightning. McGuire adapts this template to the speculative genre she’s writing in by making those irrational tendencies quintessentially Gothic ones: her murderers are a changeling succumbing to the madness that threatens everyone with half-human, half-fae blood, and a kind of fae cyborg, a dryad whose consciousness was transferred into Tamed Lightning’s mainframe when her tree was cut down. These two Gothic figures are working on a scheme to upload fae minds and thereby preserve fae culture against the encroachment of humanity and the disenchantment of the world – that is, to create a ghostly, Gothic simulacrum of Faerie.

How does the murder mystery structure work to close down the anxieties induced by these figures – anxieties around madness and the threat that technology poses to personhood? This is where it gets interesting. Gordan, the changeling, may end the novel dead; her obsessive, single-minded focus on her goal is no longer a threat. But the spectre of her madness still troubles the novel’s world: Toby is a changeling too, and Gordan’s actions put her under suspicion. The way McGuire handles technology in the context of Faerie is also fascinating: it’s not Gordan’s plot itself that’s dangerous, but the fact that she’s willing to kill people to perfect the technology. Her accomplice, April, revealed as a sympathetic character who didn’t realise the people Gordan was killing couldn’t be rebooted, is reinscribed into the social order at the end of the novel by becoming Countess of Tamed Lightning – presumably free to continue Gordan’s work in a less homicidal manner. The threat of technology, unlike the threat of madness, is tamed here, brought into Faerie’s service.

It’s a shame that this doesn’t look set to be further examined in later books: I feel like there’s a lot of potential to be exploited in the tension between technology and magic (which is only an extension of the tension that powers all urban fantasy) and the paradox inherent in using human technology to combat problems caused by humans, and McGuire only really touches on this tension in A Local Habitation. It is, nevertheless, well-handled here: one of the things that elevates the Toby Daye series above most urban fantasy is the relative complexity of McGuire’s constructed world, the way she takes existing mythology and spins it into something both unexpected and completely consistent with her sources. Having fae who are comfortable with technology – comfortable enough to merge with it – feels counterintuitive, paradoxical; but it demonstrates a measure of flexibility and diversity among the fae as a whole that accounts for their survival into the modern age, in McGuire’s mythos. That I’d like to see a little more of this intersection between technology and magic isn’t a bad thing – it’s just an indication of how well it works here.

Review: Circe

Madeline Miller’s 2018 novel Circe comes from a long line of feminist retellings of myth and legend. Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad (2005), a retelling of the Odyssey from Penelope’s point of view, is perhaps its most obvious antecedent, but we can look too to Angela Carter’s blood-drenched fairytales, Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird and Mr. Fox – which play with “Snow White” and “Bluebeard”, respectively – even, stepping sideways genre-wise for a moment, Catherynne M. Valente’s searing Six-Gun Snow White. The themes Miller is playing with here – the limits placed on female power under patriarchy; the portrayal of the witch as an essentially feminist figure, transgressing oppressive social norms – are none of them new ones; nor are they arranged in any particularly unusual way. And yet Circe was one of my top ten novels of 2020.

The novel follows its eponymous heroine from a miserable childhood in the house of her father Helios, among amoral, power-drunk gods and chilly, vain nymphs whose only purpose is to be seduced, to the lonely isle of Aiaia, whence she is banished by Zeus for turning queen bee nymph Scylla into the snake-headed monster we’re familiar with from the Odyssey. Facing a long, lonely immortality in exile, and lacking the power of the greater gods, she turns to her pharmakos, her witchcraft, for purpose, solace and protection, carving out a space for herself that is free of their toxic influence and their tyranny. She creates, one might say, a room of her own.

Miller’s achievement in Circe is to bring a deep psychological interiority to characters who are classically very flat (because the writers of Greek epic are doing different things to modern novelists), while still retaining a sense of historical authenticity: these characters don’t, crucially, feel like twenty-first century people in Greek costumes. Instead, they’re deeply embedded in the textures and rhythms of ancient life, shaped by the wide oceans and the rocky isles of Greece. the elemental pleasures of eating and drinking and craft. It’s interesting that the gods of Olympus don’t feel anywhere near as real: their power enables them to remain static and unchanging, inflicting their shallow wills on the world. It’s only those without that absolute power – mortals, but also the disinherited Circe and her rebellious siblings – who, forced to wrest survival from the world, are able to change with it, to learn and grow. It’s very satisfying seeing Circe do just that, maturing over centuries into someone who’s capable of loving, helping and having meaningful relationships with others.

I’m not usually a character reader – it’s ideas that tend to interest me – so it comes as a surprise to realise that her arc is the chief pleasure of the novel for me. Miller may not, strictly speaking, be doing anything very new or surprising here; but her points about patriarchal power aren’t any less relevant for being unoriginal, and what she does do she does very well. Circe is, quite simply, a well-crafted novel, doing what the novel as a form is uniquely suited to doing: a deep dive into a mind that is not our own, working out how to be in the world.

Review: The Habitation of the Blessed

Browsing Goodreads reviews for Catherynne M. Valente’s eighth novel The Habitation of the Blessed, I came across this note, written by someone who’d marked the book as “to-read”:

*sigh* According to the book’s summary, the premise is that the Kingdom of Prester John did exist and everything reported about it was true. That summary then goes on to say that it’s not a Christian kingdom, but rather blah blah blah blah. Right away I’m rolling my eyes. Given that the KEY FACTOR IN THE ACCOUNTS OF THE KINGDOM OF PRESTER JOHN was that it was a CHRISTIAN KINGDOM, then obviously everything reported about it WASN’T true according to this novel. I hate clumsy attempts at twists.

There are several negative reviews on the page that I disagree with, and even a couple of positive ones that largely seem to miss the point of the book, but this was the one that got me composing scathing responses in my head; because it seems to me that, far from being a “clumsy attempt at [a] twist”, this novel’s use of the Prester John story is actually deeply engaged with its Christian origins – something that should have been obvious if this reviewer had ever actually read the book.

Perhaps some context is useful here, because the tale of Prester John is now more obscure than it deserves to be – although it was immensely popular in its heyday. It seems that early in the twelfth century reports began circling of a wealthy Christian king ruling a fabulous land in the East. The reports were cemented by a letter supposedly written to the Byzantine Emperor by this very king, Prester John, describing the fantastical peoples he ruled over and the wonders of his magical country. Of course, there never was a Prester John, and the letter was likely written by a Westerner. But his legend held on till the seventeenth century, the supposed location of John’s kingdom shifting as Western explorers “discovered” more and more of the world.

So. Valente’s Prester John arrives in the land of Pentexore after his ship goes adrift in the Rimal, a great shifting sea of sand that separates this strange country from the mundane world he hails from. There he finds a stable, prosperous society of gryphons, cranes, pygmies, lions and stranger things: people with enormous ears or huge hands; headless blemmyae with their faces in their chests. The people of Pentexore are functionally immortal, being the possessors of an honest-to-goodness Fountain of Youth; to stave off the stagnancy of a deathless existence, they have the Abir, a lottery they run every three hundred years which assigns each person a new role in society: a new job, a new spouse, a new social status.

The meat of the book lies in John’s attempts to impose his theology and his understanding of the universe on Pentexore and its inhabitants. Right from the start we know that his coming to Pentexore will be disastrous, thanks to the novel’s intricate form: it’s made up of three interweaving accounts, one written by Prester John himself, one by Imtithal, nursemaid to the Queen of Pentexore’s three children, and one by Hagia, the woman who’ll come to be John’s wife. A fourth point of view is provided by Hiob, a fifteenth-century priest looking for news of Prester John who transcribes the three strange books that contain these accounts.

It’s Hagia’s account that’s the doom-laden one, as she looks back from some desolate future on John’s career in Pentexore. Hagia is a blemmye, a headless woman with eyes for nipples, which presents something of a moral quandary for the devout John: he sees her nakedness as sinful, whereas for Hagia it’s just a fact of her anatomy. (She’s hardly going to wear clothes that cover her eyes, after all.) This essential failure to come to terms with Hagia as she is, rather than viewing her through the lens of religious dogma, characterises John’s relationship with Pentexore as a whole: he insists on trying to read the land and its people Biblically. So he equates this land of immortals, with its Fountain of Youth, with the Garden of Eden; the mighty collapsed tower that forms one of its main landmarks must be the remains of Babel. Then there’s Qaspiel, a winged creature who looks to John like an angel, and who he persists in reverencing despite Qaspiel’s distress and discomfort at such treatment. John’s efforts at attempting to bring the word of God to the population may go awry – his pupils tolerant and amused by his fanciful stories – but the novel makes it clear that his dogmatic attitude is plenty dangerous all by itself: he sees Pentexore, its inhabitants and the Abir as tools for advancing the glory of his God.

I’m inclined to think that your reading of The Habitation of the Blessed will depend on your personal relationship with Christianity, as well as on your general readerly preoccupations – to a greater extent than normal, anyway. Although I come from a background that’s I suppose culturally Christian, I haven’t been a Christian since (ironically) Catholic school, and I have a general mistrust of Christianity’s record of homophobia, misogyny and colonialism. Accordingly, I never really saw John as anything other than a coloniser, an unintentional villain who’s all the more dangerous for his belief in his own righteousness. But I think there probably is space to read John as a more sympathetic character than I did: still a danger to Pentexore, but someone ultimately struggling with his religion in good faith. Not that John ever gets off lightly: his coming to Pentexore is no less a disaster for its inhabitants for the fact that he didn’t intend it to be. But the very fact that multiple readings are possible speaks to the subtlety and generosity of Valente’s characterisation.

The Habitation of the Blessed is a complex book, then, with its eloquently layered imagery, its bittersweetness, its intricate fourfold narration. It’s more, hmm, academic than the best of Valente’s work, her Radiances and Palimpsests; less lush and enchanting. But it’s still a deeply unusual novel: Valente clearly knows the time period well, and in the sea of romanticised medieval Englands that plague contemporary fantasy The Habitation of the Blessed stands out as a beautifully fashioned gem.

Review: How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?

N. K. Jemisin’s short story collection How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? is named for a 2013 essay of hers in which she discusses the lack of Black representation in SFF media. In that essay, she writes:

I wasn’t any more interested in all-black futures than I was in all-white futures. I just wanted fantasies of exploration and enchantment that didn’t slap me in the face with you don’t belong here messages. I just wanted to be able to relax and dream.

Her novels exemplify this pluralistic, fantastical outlook: the Hugo-winning Broken Earth trilogy is a story about colonialism and brutal oppression set in a multi-racial world where queerness is a run-of-the-mill reality; her standalone novel The Killing Moon features an Ancient Egypt analogue whose inhabitants practice dream-magic; in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, the first novel in the Inheritance trilogy, we find an incestuous divine threesome and, again, some fairly complex racial politics. These are novels that imagine new social possibilities, or that, in the case of the Broken Earth trilogy, are about the fight to reimagine how society works, to redefine who gets to be thought human.

The stories collected in How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?, then, are impressively diverse in terms of setting, tone and genre. We have steampunk set in a newly-free Haiti (“The Effluent Engine”); a far-future, alien-overlord dystopia (“Walking Awake”); a generation ship story with an all-Muslim cast of characters (“The Brides of Heaven”); a story of the Fair Folk in early-20th-century Alabama (“Red Dirt Witch”). There are even a couple of stories – “The Narcomancer” and “Stone Hunger” – set in worlds familiar from Jemisin’s later novels. What these stories do have in common, with each other and with the novels, is an ecstatic sense of the potential for change, brought about through revolution and protest; through connection with another being or society; or simply through a new understanding of the world and our place in it. Thus the Black heroine of “The Effluent Engine”, Jessaline Dumonde, tells her mixed-race romantic interest Eugenie, stuck in racist New Orleans, of a Haiti in which one’s ambition need not be limited by one’s race, gender or even sexual orientation. And in “On the Banks of the River Lex”, in which gods and anthropomorphic personifications linger apathetically in New York after the extinction of humanity, Death finds hope and the promise of new purpose in the burgeoning intelligence of an octopus.

Such change, though, rarely comes in these stories without a price. The opening story, “The Ones Who Stay and Fight”, stands as a sort of manifesto for the whole collection in this respect. A response to Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, it describes a utopian city, Um-Helat, organised around principles of mutual respect and support. Um-Helat’s prosperity and joy is perpetually threatened by transmissions from our own world, a place where “the notion that some people are less important than others has been allowed to take root”. Those who have been “tainted” by such transmissions – who have begun to believe in that notion – are summarily, humanely executed, lest the rot spread. This is a theme picked up on again and again in the collection: that pacifism is not enough in the face of oppressive structural violence, that tolerance is not a virtue to be extended to the intolerant. The heroines of both “Red Dirt Witch” and “Walking Awake” sacrifice themselves in order to bring about change – in one case killing an innocent bystander in the process. And when, in “The Effluent Engine”, privileged, sheltered Eugenie objects to her scientific prowess being used violently, Jessaline counters with the atrocities the French commander Rochambeau inflicted on the Haitians in the aftermath of their last failed rebellion. Eugenie’s mannered, Christian pacifism is made to seem ridiculous in the face of such atrocities: the oppressors, after all, did not obey such niceties.

This is not to portray How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? as a bleak read. There are stories that are horrible and uncomfortable or that end badly, but as a whole the collection is suffused with optimism, with vitality, with “exploration and enchantment”. Change may be difficult, but it is also wonderful: it exposes us to wonders, it allows us to build a more joyful world, a more joyful future, for everyone. In Jemisin’s own words in her introduction to the collection, “There’s the future over there. Let’s all go.”

Review: In the Vanishers’ Palace

This review contains spoilers.

It can be fairly difficult to get a handle on what’s actually happening at any particular point in Aliette de Bodard’s 2018 novella In the Vanishers’ Palace. Her prose is so rooted in her protagonist’s head, and her far-future world so wrong-footingly unfamiliar, that we frequently end up reading passages like this, where it’s hard to visualise what’s really going on:

Up close, the pillar was nothing like stone, more like polished metal given a slightly different sheen. Odd rectangular patterns were carved within it, parallel lines splitting around darker islands of pooled silver, converging towards squat nexuses in haphazard fashion. It looked like a child’s drawing, random lines and circles, but nevertheless it didn’t feel random, more like something that had its own logic…

The pillar in question is in the titular Vanishers’ palace, whence our protagonist Yȇn is taken after her mother summons the dragon-spirit Vu Côn to heal the daughter of a village elder. There is always a price for miracles, after all. Initially believing she’ll be eaten, or tortured then eaten, Yȇn is in fact tasked with looking after Vu Côn’s children Liên and Thông, to teach them ethics and etiquette and duty, for reasons that will become clear later in the narrative.

It’s a slantwise retelling of “Beauty and the Beast”, although I didn’t actually realise this until I’d finished reading it. Thematically, the two stories share an interest in morality – “Beauty and the Beast” is explicitly a didactic moral tale about what women should look for in a husband, whereas part of Yȇn’s job is to teach her charges morality through literature – and in filial piety: you’ll remember that the whole reason Beauty ends up in the Beast’s palace is because she loves her father too much to let him die, and the same is pretty much true of Yȇn, albeit her concern is for her elderly mother. The science-fictional Vanishers’ palace in which Vu Côn lives is every bit as fantastical as the Beast’s palace, capable of producing perfect fruit and other delicious foods from scratch (or, rather, from molecules, one assumes) and equipped with a vast and miraculous library.

But of course de Bodard somewhat complicates, interrogates, her original’s simplistic morality. “Beauty and the Beast” is pretty nakedly a bourgeois-capitalist fantasy: Beauty, daughter of a family down on their luck (although not so down on their luck that they cannot keep servants, apparently), attains wealth, comfort and rank by recognising her husband’s virtue. The magical palace is a manifestation of that wealth, able to provide Beauty with rich food without expending any visible effort. De Bodard’s Vanishers’ palace, meanwhile, is a different proposition altogether: the Vanishers being a godlike race who took the world apart, poisoning the land, bequeathing horrible gene-altering viruses to humanity and bending the laws of physics before, as their name suggests, disappearing somewhere nobody can reach them. The price of the untainted food their palace can produce, then, is precisely the price all but the richest of us are currently paying under capitalism: ruined fields, deadly disease, and – the central theme of In the Vanishers’ Palace, this – a cultural system that values humans according to their usefulness.

This last is where the theme of filial piety ties in. Vu Côn’s idea of responsible parenthood – of responsible guardianship not only of Liên, Thông and Yȇn but also of the hundreds of sick people occupying the makeshift hospital she’s set up in the palace – is to make decisions for her charges instead of telling them what’s up and allowing them to choose what they want. It’s this that drives much of the interpersonal tension in the novel; which is to say, the tension between Vu Côn and Yȇn, who are immediately attracted to each other despite the power differential. It’s also a complication of the original text’s straightforward view on parental relationships and traditional authority: that straightforward view, de Bodard posits, leads to the infantilisation of children and ultimately to their dehumanisation.

Back, then, to that labyrinthine prose; which I think is echoing on a technical level de Bodard’s thematic complication of “Beauty and the Beast” – that is to say, disturbing our expectations of what fairy tales are supposed to do, viz., work as clear, readable, didactic texts. In the Vanishers’ Palace does, I think, have a clear message – “don’t treat people as things” – and its disease-riddled post-apocalyptic setting obviously has clear, almost uncanny parallels with our own climate-changed, coronavirus-haunted reality. But, unlike its source text, it’s also more than its message and its relevance: in the impossible spaces of the Vanishers’ palace and inside Yȇn’s own head there are Gothic enormities. This is one of those books that feels larger than its actual page count (198, if you’re interested) would suggest. It’s messy and a little inelegant and sometimes you have to read back a few pages to work out what’s happening. But also? Those imperfections are what makes it fascinating.

Review: The Starless Sea

Published almost exactly a year ago, Erin Morgenstern’s The Starless Sea appeared on shelves eight years after her rapturously received debut The Night Circus. It’s an altogether more complex and grown-up novel than its predecessor, and yet ultimately I think the two books share a certain stasis, an escapist bent that stops them saying anything truly important.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The protagonist of The Starless Sea is Zachary, a gay Black grad student studying psychology and gender in video game design – although, when the novel opens just before the start of term, he’s busy procrastinating his studies by spending days in the library’s fiction section, rereading childhood classics. That’s where he discovers Sweet Sorrows, a wine-coloured volume that lists no author or publication information, but which does narrate a significant episode in Zachary’s own childhood – a moment when he found a door leading to wonders and walked away. We have just read this story: it appears at the beginning of the novel, alongside two other short tales that are also included in Sweet Sorrows, one of which tells of a magical underground library and a strange initiation ceremony. We conclude, correctly, that this library is what lay behind the door Our Protagonist did not open.

Zachary is understandably a little freaked out by an episode from his own life that he’s never told anyone about appearing in a library book, and after some research into where the book may have come from he chases a tenuous lead to a literary party in New York. There, a handsome storyteller named Dorian convinces him to steal another book from a powerful organisation, before sending him through another painted door into that underground library: a Harbor on the Starless Sea, stuffed with cats and a miraculous kitchen and, of course, more stories than you could ever count. But the Harbor’s closed for business; its heyday past; the Starless Sea is rising; and someone is shutting all the doors.

The Starless Sea is a lot more formally ambitious than The Night Circus: various fairytales and stories of the Harbor’s past weave themselves around the main narrative, and many of those tales are artefacts within the main narrative, creating an impression of endlessly recursive Story. The prose, similarly, is intensely descriptive, focusing on details of what things look and smell and taste and sound like to build a beguiling sense of place. The overall effect of structure and prose combined is to immerse you, the reader, in a kind of warm bath of story-symbology, to draw you into the heart of its metafictional world. In a sense the novel is what it describes: a cosy space to curl in, a seemingly-endless repository of story, a place composed of layer upon layer of half-familiar symbols.

It’s an enormously comforting read; particularly, I found, the first half, in which Zachary gets to explore the Harbor, accompanied by an apparently limitless supply of cats and fuelled by perfectly-baked treats available on demand. By the same token, though, I’m not sure there’s much going on beneath the novel’s obsession with material comforts. The symbols that recur throughout the narrative – hearts, bees, keys, swords, crowns and feathers – lead to nothing but themselves; as do the fairytales that loop endlessly back on themselves, weaving in and out of the main narrative. Stuff goes on, of course: Zachary and Dorian fall in love (an improvement on the white het romance at the centre of The Night Circus); a man out of time searches for his lover on the shores of the Starless Sea; the Harbor changes irrevocably. But all of this is coded as part of a great cycle; we get the sense that these are just stories repeating themselves. There is nothing truly, startlingly new in this story-world; it’s a recycled composite of childhood portal fantasies, of bookish fantasies like Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart, of fabulous fictional libraries like the one in Garth Nix’s Lirael, of fairy tales and stories and songs. “Arch” is the word that occurred to me while I was reading it: it feels precisely calculated to appeal to book-lovers without necessarily having anything truly urgent to say.

In that sense, it is, perhaps, the ideal pandemic read. Tapped out on real life? Sink into The Starless Sea and imagine you’re curled up in a fancy old-fashioned bedroom beside a roaring fire, no chores to do, no outside world to worry about. It is escapism in the most literal sense of the word. At the same time, though, I am uneasy with the novel’s conception of what reading is for and what readers are like. The Starless Sea above all conceptualises reading as a comfortable pursuit: the Harbor is a place where all your material needs are seen to apparently magically; and, as I’ve said, the novel’s form, structure and content creates a sense of intellectual comfort, telling us familiar narratives over and over again. But reading at its best should be anything but comfortable. We should be critical readers, examining the biases of the texts we’re given; new understanding should make us uncomfortable; as readers we should be pushing the boundaries of our engagement with the world. Above all reading should not be about retreating to an ivory tower – or an ivory cavern, as the case may be – and relinquishing our duty to the world outside. To be a good reader is to take what we have learned in books and use it in our lives to build new and better things. The vision The Starless Sea offers of readers and reading is beguiling and dangerous; it is not one we should take with us into our real lives.

Review: Norse Mythology

Neil Gaiman’s latest book-length project Norse Mythology frustrates me. As the title suggests, it’s a collection of Norse myths, placed in an order that’s at least nominally coherent, stretching from the beginning of the world to its ending in the disasters of Ragnarok. Generally, it focuses on Loki, Odin and Thor; Loki’s exploits in particular provide the backbone for what little continuity the stories have, although there is a general sense that we are supposed to read these characters as logically consistent people, i.e. as we would read characters in a modern novel.

My question, really, is what Norse Mythology is for. I don’t know these stories in detail, the way I know Greek mythology, for instance; but I don’t get the sense Gaiman has changed very much here. What changes do exist are largely cosmetic: the gods’ dialogue is a touch more demotic than we might expect; things are occasionally conceptualised in modern terminology (“oxygen-rich” air pumps through the bellows of the dwarf Brokk). These are changes clearly geared at making the stories relevant and accessible to a modern audience; breathing new life into them, as it were. But it’s jarring to read such modernising touches set against a backdrop of casual misogyny and transphobia which does more to date the myths than any amount of archaic diction ever could.

And, actually, none of this misogyny or transphobia is particularly necessary to the structure of the myths themselves. Thor’s discomfort at posing as the bride of the ogre Thrym in order to get his hammer back: why not use Loki, who’s already there in the scene, as a foil to make Thor ridiculous in his fragile masculinity? Loki’s anger when people mention how he gave birth to Sleipnir in the form of a mare: just leave it out! Sif leaving a council of gods in order to show her friends her new hair: again, just don’t mention it! At the beginning of the book, in the creation of the world, we meet the giant Ymir, who is both male and female at the same time. Gaiman uses the derogatory pronoun “it” to refer to Ymir; if we’re talking about relevance, how simple would it have been to use “they” instead, a real pronoun that actual non-binary people use? None of this is substantially changing the meaning of the myths; they’re just – interpretations. Looking at the stories in a different light. Which is, surely, the whole point of retellings.

Or, say that for whatever reason you don’t want to remove the patriarchal slant that lies in the myths’ backgrounds. In that case, why not lean into their archaism? This is my second major problem with Norse Mythology: it has no sense of grandeur, of majesty, of darkness lurking in great pine forests or the passes of mountains. The gods in these stories are remarkably unheroic figures, forever being tricked by Loki or by an ogre somewhere – I’d argue that this is partly a result of presenting them as psychologically consistent characters without doing any extra characterisation work, and partly a result of Gaiman’s middle-of-the-road prose, which renders even Ragnarok unimpressive.

The thing is – this is Neil Gaiman, right? Isn’t he supposed to be the king of dark fairytale, of making old stories new, of drawing meaning out of the night – according to his personal branding, anyway? Why, then, is Norse Mythology so boring?

Ultimately, what I want from a retelling, and what Norse Mythology utterly lacks, is a sense of vision. I want to know why the author is retelling this particular story; why they think it’s relevant now; what they see in it that makes it worthy of our attention, today – whether that’s a mood, a set of themes, a central character. I want a thesis, not a half-hearted attempt to modernise the surface of stories that leaves their old and destructive prejudices intact. Norse Mythology frustrates me because it represents wasted potential. There is so much in these old stories that could be made darkly, delightfully new. Gaiman has missed every opportunity to do so.

Review: City of the Beasts

City of the Beasts is Chilean magical-realist author Isabel Allende’s tenth novel, and her first YA one (although it was published way back in 2002, before that genre really came into focus). Its protagonist is 15-year-old Alex Cold, who’s whisked away by his grandmother on an adventure into the Amazon, searching for a cryptid known as the Beast: an enormous creature that walks on two legs and emits a fabulously awful smell. They’re joined by guide Cesar Santos and his twelve-year-old daughter Nadia, narcissistic anthropologist Ludovic Leblanc (who has built a career off claiming that the indigenous peoples of the Amazon are murderous and savage) and Venezeulan doctor Omayra Torres. But! Alex and Nadia hear the expedition’s co-sponsor, wealthy industrialist Mauro Carias, plotting to use the expedition to exterminate the indigenous tribes in the area they’re heading to in order to gain access to the Amazon’s mineral wealth. Uncovering this plot, and protecting the people of the Amazon from unchecked greed and ignorance, takes Alex and Nadia on a quest into the rainforest’s heart, where they encounter the People of the Mist, an uncontacted tribe who fear the cultural eradication or assimilation that will undoubtedly accompany the incursion of the outside world into their land.

Allende’s novel is, then, a Bildungsroman: it charts Alex’s passage from slightly spoiled California teenager to saviour and honorary member of an Amazon tribe. He and Nadia meet their totemic animals (yes, I know; hold that thought, please), go through official initiation rituals and travel to the home of the gods in order to win valuable treasures for themselves and the People of the Mist. I don’t think it could be more Bildungsroman if it tried. There’s a clear dichotomy throughout the book between modern Western life, which Allende portrays as “tame”, dull and ecologically rapacious, and life in the Amazon, where honour can be won, where all is in harmony with the rainforest, where ancient wonders and magical things walk. One of the indigenous people accompanying the expedition party, Karakawe, is said to have been infected by the “madness” of Western individuality, and is thus unlikely to return to his tribe. And it’s significant that the first time picky eater Alex gets to eat to his heart’s content after entering the rainforest is at the behest of the wealth-hungry Mauro Carias.

The idea that Western influence is bad for the Amazon and its people is not, on the face of it, that objectionable: if history tells us anything it’s that indigenous people rarely come off better in the long run for encountering Westerners; and it’s certainly true that the Amazon rainforest is being destroyed at a terrifying rate by people who are largely after profit. The book’s ecological message, and its conclusion that perhaps the West and its scientists shouldn’t get their grubby hands on everything, are…things I can get behind.

Here’s the rub, though. I can’t help wondering what research, if any, Allende conducted into the indigenous tribes of the Amazon. Her portrayal of them is so romanticised, so New Age-y, that I wouldn’t be surprised if she had done none. They live perfect lives, in perfect harmony with the forest; the only diseases they get are measles brought by outsiders (as opposed to, for example, malaria). Alex’s picky eating habits get discarded once among them, for obvious reasons, but the implication that food hygiene is a needless Western luxury feels like an oversimplification – I imagine even indigenous peoples can get food poisoning. But the main problem is that, put simply, none of the People of the Mist feel, well, like people. Children, maybe. Inscrutable alien Others. But not humans with complex motivations and emotional lives. Which is, in its own way, as racist as Ludovic Leblanc’s outrageous claims about their savagery. It’s also uncomfortable that they’re saved by two outsider teenagers, one of them a white boy, and that the whole story is told from the perspective of those outsiders, instead of the perspective of those whose livelihoods are the ones at risk.

There are things about City of the Beasts that I want to like, particularly its ecological message and its quite pragmatic approach to the gods of the People of the Mist – an approach that allows space for the supernatural while still offering a rational explanation for the gods’ presence. But its patronising take on indigenous life is unignorable; it’s fundamental to how the novel works, and so I can’t in good conscience recommend that anyone read it.