Review: Sorcerer’s Legacy

CW: infertility, child death.

This review contains spoilers.

In one of those slightly uncanny moments when life seems to rhyme with art, I’m writing this on the day of the Queen’s funeral, an event whose public pomp and spectacle clashed in odd and revealing ways with the private grief of the Mountbatten-Windsor family. Sorcerer’s Legacy, the first novel by fantasy veteran Janny Wurts, addresses similar tensions: it’s a book whose characters are hemmed in by the very monarchical institutions that give them power.

Our protagonist is Elienne, the pregnant wife of a king who’s deposed at the beginning of the novel. She’s unexpectedly rescued from sexual slavery by the titular sorcerer, Ielond. Ielond belongs to the court of another kingdom whose prince, Darion, has been cursed with infertility. This is a problem for Darion, since the laws of his kingdom demand that he must conceive a child by his 25th birthday or be executed (he also cannot become king until he’s proved that he’s fertile). Ielond, seeking to prevent Darion’s devious regent taking the throne, proposes to Elienne that she pass off the child she’s carrying as Darion’s; not having many other options, she accepts, and Ielond dies in order to perform the magic that will make it possible to bring her to Darion’s court. Shenanigans ensue, as Darion’s regent attempts to thwart him and Elienne tries to navigate an unfamiliar court. There’s a prophecy at play, too: one of the court’s seers tells Elienne that she will “die truthful”. And Ielond’s impossibly detailed scheming lies behind everything, as the events he set in motion before his death play themselves out.

Both Darion and Elienne are constrained, then, by the patriarchal laws of heredity that underlie the monarchical system; Darion’s very life is secondary to the monarchy’s ability to sustain itself, and Elienne’s position in the court is dependent on her ability to conceive. The inevitability of the prophecy and of the working-out of Ielond’s plans represents a further constraint on Darion and Elienne’s lives that’s tied specifically to their roles in the monarchy: Elienne hears the prophecy specifically in her capacity as queen-to-be, and Ielond’s plots are aimed at making sure the kingdom has a decent ruler. In other words, the very public roles that Darion and Elienne are thrust into – through birth and through extremity of need – restrict their agency and fields of action significantly; the irony is, of course, that they are nominally some of the most privileged people in the kingdom.

But this isn’t really a full-throated critique of the monarchy; it is, instead, a novel about how Darion and Elienne can begin to construct a private life for themselves while performing their public roles. (This tension is heightened, of course, by the fact that Elienne’s lie about the parentage of her child could get her killed: she’s forced to be on her guard, playing her role, almost all the time.) The novel eventually becomes a romance; Elienne’s child is killed by the regent, and Darion’s fertility magically restored so that he is eligible to become king in his own right, and not as the result of a lie. Thus the status quo is protected and the integrity of the monarchical line preserved.

Consolatory fantasy like this can have its pleasures, but even taking it as such I found Sorcerer’s Legacy unsatisfying. Restricted almost entirely to the milieu of a faux-medieval court, its sphere of action feels airless and contextless: what are conditions like for the ordinary people of this kingdom? What is its economy like, its landscapes? Not a clue. For all its concern for the effects of monarchical power on the people that hold it, it shows remarkably little interest in how the machinations of the court relate to those who are ruled by it. The stakes, in other words, feel laughably low for a story that is ostensibly about who gets to hold sovereign power.

But perhaps monarchical power has always operated without regard to the needs of the people who are ruled: certainly many of the businesses that closed in the UK today did so without considering those for whom the absence of a day’s pay would affect their ability to pay their rent on time. In any case, I didn’t ultimately think Sorcerer’s Legacy was very interesting, and I probably won’t be reading any more of Wurts’ work.

Review: Who Fears Death

CW: rape, FGM.

Nnedi Okorafor’s 2010 novel Who Fears Death is one of those texts that casts a weighty shadow on the genre. Published around the time that work by people of colour and LGBT+ people – and particularly work that actually centred the experience of characters with these identities rather than seeking to educate white straight people about them – was moving into the SF mainstream (Racefail, a conversation about people of colour in SFF, had happened just a year before), it’s often cited as a significant work of specifically African SFF: Tade Thompson here calls it a “milestone” and Okorafor “The most significant writer in African SFF”. John Ottinger III here describes the novel as “perception altering”; Yvonne Zipp called it “wondrously magical and terribly realistic”. Reading it 12 years later, then, it’s interesting how formulaic it ultimately feels.

Set in a far-future Sudan whose inhabitants have for the most part rejected modern technology as sinful and dangerous, it follows the teenage Onyesonwu, the daughter of a woman of Okeke ethnicity who was raped by a man of another ethnic group, the Nuru, in an attempt at systematic genocide. Onye, as she’s nicknamed, overcomes the mistrust and fear of her community, not to mention institutionalised misogyny, to become an immensely powerful sorcerer in order to prevent the wholesale destruction of the Okeke, who she regards as her people thanks to her mother, by the Nuru in a campaign orchestrated by her father.

Clearly, there’s a lot going on here, and before I dive into my criticisms of the novel I want to mention something about it that I do think has stood the test of time: namely, that this is a story about systematic oppression featuring African folks that is not about white people. There’s one character who we might read as white, but whiteness as a construct, as a structural force, is absent. That still feels unusual in today’s literary landscape, although it’s becoming less so with the advent of novels like N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season and Marlon James’ Black Leopard, Red Wolf.

For the most part, though, Who Fears Death simply reheats the Hero’s Journey: Onye passes a test to gain access to a reluctant teacher and develops incredible powers, but leaves her training early in order to confront her evil father, who is plotting genocide…I’m finding it very hard not to think of Star Wars, here. That, in itself, is not necessarily a problem. Are we not constantly being told that there are only approximately seven basic plots? But in a novel so lauded, I would have expected to see some sort of subversion of this classic structure, and it’s just not there.

Well; perhaps that’s not quite true. One of the things everyone mentions about Who Fears Death is its violence: there is rape, there is murder, there is FGM. There’s also a lot of explicit sex. I wonder if what Okorafor is attempting here isn’t a bit similar to what Marlon James is doing in Black Leopard, Red Wolf: exposing the violence inherent in traditional Western fantasy, making it explicit rather than cloaking it behind faux-medieval notions of honour and nobility. There’s also, I think, an attempt at greater honesty around teenage attitudes to sex than is typical in fantasy, and particularly the YA fantasy that Okorafor is most clearly responding to.

This explicitness doesn’t work as well as it does in James’ work primarily because we’re not actually supposed to like any of James’ characters, and because James’ commitment to the bleakness of his vision is unwavering; whereas, although Onye frequently behaves in unlikable ways, I think we are ultimately supposed to root for her and identify with her. Supposed to being the operative phrase: to me, she felt simply inconsistent, by turns manipulative, loyal, self-centred and altruistic; Okorafor seems bent on telling us that she’s admirable while showing us a reality that’s quite different. Onye is supposed, I think, to be morally ambiguous; but her characterisation ends up simply being confused. It doesn’t help that explicit depictions of sex and violence aimed at undermining the colonialist and misogynistic bases of Western SFF have become steadily more commonplace in the genre since Who Fears Death was published: Okorafor’s work here simply feels less innovative, less startling, than presumably it once did.

I think my greatest problem with the novel, though, is its affect. Magic as a literary device is, at its core, a way of talking about the numinous: the irrational or invisible forces (luck, faith, the psyche, nature, fear, love, despair, hatred) that shape our lives in often ineffable ways. Its narrative charge and resonance, generally speaking, comes from its obscurity: the most effective portrayals of magic, in my opinion, preserve some element of mystery, of inexplicability. Okorafor’s descriptions of magic and spiritual experience, though, are flat, matter-of-fact, thuddingly literal:

“Then I noticed it. Red and oval-shaped with a white oval in the center, like the giant eye of a jinni. It sizzled and hissed, the white part expanding, moving closer. It horrified me to my very core. Must get out of here! I thought. Now! It sees me! But I didn’t know how to move. Move with what? I had no body. The red was bitter venom. The white was like the sun’s worst heat. I started screaming and crying again. Then I was opening my eyes to a cup of water.”

And Onye is massively overpowered: she’s apparently capable of doing pretty much anything she sets her mind to, magically speaking, which further dilutes the significance of her abilities. Her magic, ultimately, comes to feel inconsequential and incoherent; it exerts little force in the narrative.

I think, then, that this is partly a case of a once-innovative novel ageing badly: it’s clearly attempting to coopt, and thus comment on, the structures and assumptions of contemporary fantasy, and its non-Western setting and cultural milieu are important aspects of that attempt. But there are enough newer texts doing the same work better – works with more resonant force, with greater clarity of character and theme – that this one feels out of date.

Review: In Other Lands

Originally published online, Sarah Rees Brennan’s 2017 novel In Other Lands makes an interesting comparison with Simon Ings’ Hot Head, which I reviewed here last week. Both novels are imperfect, baggy, even flawed; both, though, are extremely genre-savvy, deploying the conventions and tropes of, respectively, portal fantasy and cyberpunk strategically to help us see these textual traditions in a new light. For my money, In Other Lands is more straightforwardly of its genre, rather than transcending it as Hot Head does; nevertheless, it’s still an entertaining and intelligent novel that hit me right in the heartstrings.

Our Protagonist is Elliot, a schoolboy who discovers on a dodgy field trip at the age of 13 that he can see the wall between our world and the titular other lands, a generic medieval fantasyland where dwell elves, dwarves and other creatures. Offered a choice between staying with an indifferent parent in England and joining a school on the other side of the wall that’s dedicated to training up young Border Guards – folk who notionally keep the peace along the border between our world and fantasyland – he chooses the option that all portal fantasy protagonists do, indeed must: he chooses the unknown.

Brennan’s key narrative tactic in the novel is one that will be familiar to readers of Terry Pratchett and his imitators: she interrogates the conventions of portal fantasy through the eyes of a psychologically modern protagonist, asking common-sense questions like “isn’t this magical school essentially training child soldiers?” and “why does everyone need to fight when they could have treaties?” Diverting though Elliot’s sardonicism and precocity are, they’re hardly original; it’s Brennan’s play with the nature of his subjectivity as a fantasy protagonist that makes the novel truly stand out. Because one of her masterstrokes is to transfer real-life high-school dynamics into her fantasy setting: she’s interested in how real teens (and adults) would respond to the kind of child who ends up in YA fantasy novels. With his wide vocabulary, his passion for learning everything he can about the Borderlands and the fantastical world beyond them, and his obvious conviction that he knows everything better than any of the actual adults around him, there is a little Eustace Scrubb about him, as Electra Pritchett points out; but also a little Lyra Silvertongue too, a little September Morning Bell. It’s something of a surprise, then, generically speaking, when his classmates and teachers fail to hang on his every word. (Even Harry Potter had his fans at Hogwarts: “Our new – celebrity.”)

This is because Elliot is an asshole, and he’s an asshole kind of without realising it. We sympathise deeply with him because the fact that he is the protagonist gives us privileged access to his history and his subjectivity: we know that neglectful parenting has left him craving love and attention, but his classmates and teachers don’t. All they see is an annoying, manipulative know-it-all. And if they did know: well: pity is generally not a good foundation on which to build a friendship. Elliot, crucially, does not get a pass for being the protagonist. We all experience ourselves as protagonists of our own lives; that doesn’t mean we can treat those around us as sidekicks and secondary characters. One of the ends Elliot’s manipulation is often targeted at is the brokering of peace treaties with the non-human races in the lands patrolled by the Border Guards – although Brennan clearly thinks he is right to oppose what amounts to institutional chauvinism, she’s also clear that this doesn’t give him the right to disregard the agency of his peers and teachers.

So, first and foremost, In Other Lands is the story of Elliot growing up; of becoming a person who is worthy of respect, kindness and love both romantic and platonic. It’s a hard road, and Brennan is unflinching in depicting that emotional reality: as someone who went through a similar journey of learning-to-be-a-person later in life than usual, I felt Elliot’s profound loneliness, his despair and rage, and also his passion for the world, his belief that things can be better than they are. I was in tears more than once.

It’s not a perfect novel. (Frankly, my favourite works rarely are.) In what is presumably a relic of its original publication circumstances, In Other Lands is divided into four chunky sections, each corresponding to a year of schooling in the Borderlands; there are no smaller subdivisions of content (i.e., chapters), which, given the fact that the narrative shape of the novel is somewhat digressionary and episodic, makes the pacing feel a little wacky. The prose, too, is nothing to write home about: here, too, the text’s internet origins are on show in the ironic juxtaposition of fantasy setting and modern idiom demonstrated in passages like:

“Elliot was trying to teach himself trollish via a two-hundred-year-old book by a man who’d had a traumatic break-up with a troll. This meant a lot of commentary along the lines of “This is how trolls say I love you. FOOTNOTE: BUT THEY DON’T MEAN IT!””

Fun, but it’s been done before. All over Tumblr.

Nineteen years ago, gamer Michael Suileabhain-Wilson defined five Geek Social Fallacies: a set of beliefs about the overriding importance of friendship and unconditional inclusion that, ironically, often lead to geeky social groups being hotbeds of interpersonal drama that are hostile to outsiders and overly tolerant of missing stairs. As awareness of the ways that geek spaces work to exclude marginalised people has become mainstream, Suileabhain-Wilson’s post has gained significant currency in internet discourse, aided perhaps most notably by the inimitable Captain Awkward. With its irreverent, easy humour and its deconstruction of the hero complex that many YA fantasy protagonists operate under – in texts that have often influenced the values of the kind of geek groups Suileabhain-Wilson talks about – In Other Lands feels like a continuation of the conversation. I’d put it with Kristin Cashore’s Graceling series and Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom books as an example of progressive, modern YA that’s realistic about relationships and the travails of growing up – YA I would have been glad to have on my shelf as a teenager.

Review: The Proverbs of Middle-Earth

I’m a Tolkien fan. I’ve read The Lord of the Rings every year for at least the last ten years, and probably longer than that. I know the books more or less inside out. For better or worse, they have shaped me as a reader, as a thinker and as a person.

It’s precisely for this reason that I very rarely read criticism of Tolkien’s work*, and I never write it. When you know a text that well, it’s impossible to get any sort of critical distance from it. What efforts I have made to say something meaningful and insightful about the books have turned out shallow and insubstantial; I think there’s a tendency as a reader to mistake personal gnosis about a beloved text for objective critical insight.

I mention this because, in my view, this fannish lack of critical rigour is exactly what afflicts David Rowe’s study The Proverbs of Middle-Earth. Rowe’s stated intention is to interrogate the different cultures of Middle-earth, and the individual members of those cultures that we meet in the texts, through the proverbs that they use. This isn’t inherently an unsound proposition, although I can think of more interesting approaches (for instance, considering how proverbial utterances represent assertions of power in the text – I’m thinking of passages like Gimli and Elrond’s proverbial exchange on the subject of whether the Fellowship should be required to take oaths of loyalty in The Fellowship of the Ring). But it’s one that’s very open to the sort of Watsonian textual interpretation that I see a lot in fandom, and that I personally find very frustrating for the way it elides the role of the author: discussing elements of a secondary world as if they were real, without reference to wider cultural factors or artistic goals that might have influenced how they were written. So, in his chapter on Tom Bombadil and Goldberry, Rowe concludes that “Instead of profound counsel to navigate the vagaries of existence, the subjects with which Bombadil and Goldberry’s wisdom concerns itself are the simple things of their simple lives…Courage, war, justice, death, and the wider world are off the radar.” This isn’t an incorrect assertion (although I’d argue that you don’t need to spend seven pages talking about Bombadil and Goldberry’s use of proverbs to get to it). But any sort of critical development is missing. How is the pair’s simple life important to the text? How does it relate to Tolkien’s conception of the relationship between humanity and nature? Could Thorin’s comment in The Hobbit about valuing “food and cheer and song above hoarded gold” shed any light here? Who knows? Not David Rowe, it seems. This is the case in every chapter: Rowe will come to some fairly obvious conclusion about the culture he’s describing and fail utterly to interrogate the significance of that conclusion within the text and within Tolkien’s corpus as a whole.

There are points, too, when Rowe veers from Watsonian exegesis into wholesale fabrication, as when in his chapter on Hobbits he posits that “three intermingling streams can be identified within the wisdom culture of the Shire-folk”. These three streams, he claims, correspond to the three different classes of Shire society: Rustics, Gentlehobbits and Travellers (the latter a class made up exclusively, apparently, of Frodo, Bilbo, Sam, Pippin and Merry). But the text, I’d argue, doesn’t support these neat divisions; certainly not in so clear-cut a way as Rowe’s confident laying-out of these classes might suggest. They’re presented as divisions that exist unambiguously within the world of the novel, rather than as interpretive tools. This may seem like a semantic difference, but to me it’s symptomatic of the lack of rigour Rowe displays throughout the book.

This lack of rigour is also evident in Rowe’s failure to stick to a useful definition of what counts as a proverb within the texts. Early on, he cites eminent paremiologist Professor Wolfgang Mieder in defining a proverb as “a concise statement of an apparent truth that has had, has, or will have currency among the people.” It’s the “currency among the people” part that Rowe struggles with: while there are a number of sayings in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings that are clearly marked as proverbs, explicitly or implicitly, there are plenty of other aphoristic pieces of dialogue that might be Middle-Earth proverbs, except that we have no textual evidence either way. Sprawling as Tolkien’s worldbuilding was, in many cases we simply don’t have enough access to each Middle-Earth culture to know whether a phrase has “currency among the people” or not. But instead of restricting himself to aphorisms that are obviously proverbial in-universe – which would, I think, actually have made the book more focused and thus more insightful – he broadens his scope to include practically every phrase that sounds even vaguely profound. Is Aragorn’s “It is perilous to cut bough or twig from a living tree in Fangorn” a proverb? Clearly not. It’s just dialogue. It maybe looks like a bit like a proverb from our perspective because of Tolkien’s archaic diction and sentence structure, but there’s nothing to suggest that lots of people actually say this on a regular basis in-universe. Or what about Gandalf’s “There is nothing Sauron cannot turn to evil uses”? Again, not so much a proverb as a statement of fact, a truism. Thus at times The Proverbs of Middle-Earth begins to feel like an investigation not of Tolkien’s proverbs but of his dialogue; and not a very interesting one either.

In David Rowe’s Introduction to his book, he speaks tellingly of the proverbs of Middle-earth as key components of Tolkien’s worldbuilding:

They…constitute one of the most widely-occurring streams of credibility-building detail in Tolkien’s work, meaning that studying them is one of the best ways in which…Tolkien’s convincing, satisfying world [can be] enjoyed.

That Rowe’s key justification for studying Tolkien’s proverbs is in order to enjoy the novels more – rather than to examine Tolkien’s prose style, or the Old English oral storytelling traditions his work often harks back to, for instance – goes right to the heart of the amateur enthusiasm that powers The Proverbs of Middle-Earth. The book is clearly a labour of love in the truest sense – but I can’t see it granting new insights to anyone who already knows The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings inside out.

*I’m not, here, talking about work that exposes Tolkien’s racism and sexism: as with any author, I think it’s vital to acknowledge and grapple with the more problematic aspects of his writing.

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: Shriek: An Afterword

The caprices of the written word – of its infinite potential for misreading, misinterpretation, misrepresentation – have long been a concern of the Gothic mode: think of Frankenstein‘s layered unreliable narrators; of Wuthering Heights’ overheated epistolary format; of the uncertain ontological status of the film The Navidson Record in Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. Texts of all kinds, these novels tell us, are slippery, unstable things, contingent on the perceptions of both their readers and their writers; they both discuss this instability and perform it in the gaps between their constituent parts, in the way that they all, in various ways, use the hyperbolic aesthetics of the mode to reveal and conceal the great indescribable void that lies at the heart of language itself.

Jeff Vandermeer’s Shriek: An Afterword participates similarly in this process. Set in the fictional city of Ambergris, the subject of several of Vandermeer’s works, it is, as the title suggests, a purported afterword to “The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris”, one of the stories in the collection City of Saints and Madmen (which I have not read, but now fully intend to). The fact that, being novel-length, it is substantially longer than the text it is supposedly appended to is one of its many deliberate, and delicious, ironies. It’s the tale of the “Early History”’s author, Duncan Shriek, edited substantially by his sister Janice, and then edited again by Duncan; together, by lurching turns, they tell the story of Duncan’s disgrace at the hands of his ex-lover, the rival historian Mary Sabon, and of Janice’s own rise and fall in the city’s art scene.

Underpinning these domestic dramas, like a constant uneasy pulse in the background, is the awareness of the unknowable realm that lies beneath the city – the realm of the gray caps, inscrutable fungoid creatures who were massacred in their thousands when Ambergris was founded, and who are widely considered to be behind a disastrous and inexplicable historical event called the Silence, when a large part of Ambergris’ citizenry disappeared without a trace. What are the gray caps thinking, what are they planning (they certainly seem to be planning something), what do they want and why? No-one knows. It is perhaps not possible to know.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the novel reminded me strongly of China Mieville’s sublime, messy Bas-Lag series, which is similarly interested in how what we fondly know as civilisation, the social order of the city, coexists with the unknowable and the inhuman. The gray caps and their fungal world are what Mieville would call abcanny: illegible, unspeakable, so utterly outside any human frame of reference as to be incapable of being contained in normal symbolic schema, and yet, perhaps precisely because of that, unignorable.

Set alongside the mystery of the gray caps, which Duncan is unsuccessfully trying to investigate, is the comparatively mundane fact of the novel’s metatextual games: its footnotes, its editorial interpolations, its interest in different methods of historiography and different ways of relating to the past. As we have seen, this kind of textual play troubles our understanding of language, of the written word, as straightforwardly representative; if each of us interprets language, and textual constructs like history, differently, what kind of claim can any of us ever make to objective truth?

Taken together, then, the gray caps and the novel’s textual instability both point up the inadequacy of our models of seeing the world; in Lacanian terms, they represent the Real intruding inescapably into the Symbolic. Duncan and Janice’s interpersonal problems seem almost irrelevant against the threat, the mystery, of the gray caps; their bickering over who gets the last word feels insignificant given their society’s inability to interpret events like the (aptly-named) Silence. And yet. Life goes on. The city remains.

As metaphors for the human condition go, it’s a troubling and perceptive one. The great strength of the novel is that it never does explain what the gray caps’ deal is; that despite all attempts to interact with them they remain simply…there, causing the city to stew in its own genocidal guilt, which it is neither willing to ignore nor to engage with productively. Vandermeer, like the best Gothic novelists, ekes tremendous resonance and power from the work of simultaneously concealing and revealing the unspeakability that lies at the heart of our most fundamental social structures, the senseless, brutal violence underlying much of Western civilisation. Ambergris, embattled and sinful city of saints and madmen, is a place I’ll definitely be returning to.

Review: The Water Dancer

This review contains spoilers.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2019 novel The Water Dancer is speculative fiction doing what speculative fiction does best: defamiliarising the world and our place in it, calling us to see it with fresh eyes. Our protagonist is Hiram Walker, a slave on a declining plantation in antebellum Virginia who discovers that he has the power to move himself and other people over large distances through a process dubbed “conduction” – a process that seems to have a mystical connection to water. He uses this power to escape the plantation, joining up with an underground group of abolitionists working to move slaves north to freedom – and is forced to confront the question of what freedom truly means when your history has been taken from you.

Comparisons, usually negative ones, have inevitably been drawn between The Water Dancer and Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel The Underground Railroad, in which a fleeing slave escapes to a series of alternative futures using a literal hidden railway. Both novels, then, deploy magical realism to elide the actual journeys of their escaping characters in order to place their thematic focus elsewhere; both are interested in part in the motivations of white abolitionists and the way they were often just as racist as actual slaveowners. For my money, though – and perhaps this is because I am first and foremost an SFF reader, not a litfic reader – Coates’ novel is the more lyrical, the more compelling, and the more unusual.

Its key defamiliarisation tactic is not, in fact, its use of conduction, but the way that it almost never uses the word “slave” or “slavery”. Coates’ fictional Virginia features three different classes of people: the Tasked, the African-American slaves; the Quality, the white landowners; and the Low, working-class white people (usually men). To me this classification system registers as a little YA-dystopian, which I don’t mean as a negative comment: I think this is Coates’ comics background bleeding through, reminding us primarily that slavery was first and foremost a system of dehumanisation, a system based – like many YA dystopias – on an arbitrary construct (in this case, the construct of race).

One way in which The Water Dancer differs from Whitehead’s novel – and many other narratives of slavery – is that there is comparatively little on-page violence. Whitehead’s enslaved characters operate constantly under the threat of torture and rape. His protagonist Cora knows that the fate she will meet if she is recaptured will most likely be worse than death; and Whitehead does not shy away from depicting that possible fate as it is suffered by other would-be escapees. Lurking behind these depictions of violence is the reader’s knowledge that they are not solely fictional, that these punishments were inflicted upon fleeing slaves in real life. Coates’ novel is different: while we do hear about floggings, rape and straight-up medical neglect, it’s comparatively rare that they’re actually described on-page, and when we do see it it’s never as extreme as it is in The Underground Railroad. This is, I want to suggest, because Coates is interested in the institution of slavery itself as inherently dehumanising, rather than the atrocities that were inflicted upon Black bodies under the auspices of that institution.

Witness, for example, the role that memory plays in the novel. Conduction relies upon memory, and particularly upon cultural memory, on the history that links all the novel’s enslaved African-Americans together. In order to harness conduction so he can save more Tasked from the south, Hiram must reconnect with a long-lost memory of his dead mother. Lost families are everywhere in The Water Dancer: the plantation Tasked are terrified of being sent west to more prosperous states, as they’ll be separated from their families and communities; Hiram himself leaves behind a mother-figure, Thena, when he escapes. What slavery takes from its victims, then, is a sense of shared history, community and memory; working with the abolitionists, Hiram comes to understand, as his white colleagues cannot, that there is no true freedom without these things. That’s why conduction depends upon memory: Hiram is only able to bring freedom to the Tasked when he can restore a little of the shared culture that has been taken from them.

The Water Dancer is a novel, then, that uses the techniques of speculative fiction to defamiliarise the institution of slavery in order to re-emphasise its brutality; to draw attention away from the physical cruelty of slaveowners and their white staff and towards the way that slavery in and of itself had dehumanising effects that reverberate to this day. It’s a novel about family, about shared memory, about Black community, narrated in dreamy, elegant prose that emphasises the beauty and importance of the intangibles that Hiram is trying to return to his fellow Tasked. It’s the kind of novel that reminds me why I read SFF, and why SFF is a valuable pursuit.

Review: Windwitch

I’ve been thinking and writing a lot recently about the current drive in SFF for greater diversity of character, setting and narrative, for texts that acknowledge identities beyond the assumed white cishet norm and cultures outside the Western Anglosphere, and how that drive correlates – or not, as the case may be – with the actual quality of the texts that are being produced. Susan Dennard’s Windwitch, I’d argue, is an example of a text where an attempt at diversity has not made up for its other failures.

Windwitch is the sequel to Truthwitch, a fairly standard YA secondary world fantasy novel that was distinguished primarily by the relationship between its two female leads, Safi and Iseult. Back when the novel was published in 2016 it was still fairly rare to encounter strong platonic female friendships in fiction (it’s not exactly common even now), and so the deep, abiding relationship Safi and Iseult develop in Truthwitch was pretty refreshing to read.

However, the end of the novel sees them split up, and, crucially, they remain apart throughout Windwitch – and with their relationship taking a back seat in this second instalment, the rest of what’s going on in the book begins to look rather tired and familiar. There’s a pirate town and a game of wits; a long trek through the wilderness; a city under threat of magical war, its people starving and mistreated. There’s a magic system that’s so mechanical it feels arbitrary, abstracted from any sort of metaphorical resonance (I am not a fan of structured magic systems for precisely this reason); a prince (Safi’s love interest) presumed dead but actually not; a wicked scheming princess who takes advantage of his absence to seize power. (Actually the princess turns out to be not that wicked after all, and in fact slightly badass, but I admit that by the time this revelation occurred I had sort of stopped caring.) The class dynamics are exactly as you’d expect from this type of story: pretty much every major character is privileged either by their birth or by their possession of magical powers. The one exception is…problematic in other ways. And this is where Dennard’s somewhat misguided attempt at diversity comes in.

The character in question, Cam, is currently the aforementioned Prince Merik’s only supporter/comrade/general helper. He presents as male, but Merik, having accidentally spotted him binding his breasts one (1) time, concludes that he’s actually a woman who chooses to dress as a man for reasons that Merik magnanimously decides not to quiz him about. (That “magnanimously” is sarcasm, by the way.) It becomes clear at the end of the novel, when Merik and Cam have a blazing row, that Cam is a trans man, not a crossdressing woman. Which…great! Trans rep, right? But the upshot of Merik’s obliviousness is that he spends the entire novel misgendering Cam – and, because every scene that Cam is in is told from Merik’s point of view, that means the voice of the novel is misgendering Cam too. This, to put it mildly, is not great. After their row, Merik does resolve to use the correct pronouns for Cam, but the damage is done: the novel has consistently centred a cis character and his personal growth at the expense of a trans character.

This is a pattern that we see over and over in texts about people with marginalised identities. The very existence of this pattern makes it clear that, no, the mere presence of a marginalised character is not and will never be enough to make a book good. Windwitch is ultimately disappointing because it replaces some highly effective representation that defies the gaze of the hegemonic group – the representation of a platonic, abiding female friendship that remains unaffected by Safi’s attraction to Merik – with some very poor representation that prioritises the gaze of the hegemonic group. This isn’t a series that I plan to return to.

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.