Review: Come Tumbling Down

I never seem to have very much to say about Seanan McGuire’s work, despite quite enjoying it when I actually read it. The fifth novella in her Wayward Children series, Come Tumbling Down, is a case in point. Featuring the students of a school for children who once entered other worlds, Narnia-style, and returned to this world only to find the doorways back shut for good, the novella sees a former student of the school, Jack, who managed in an earlier installment to re-enter her magical country, turn up in its basement again in the body of her villainous sister, Jill. Jack and her lover Alexis solicit the help of some of the school’s current students to help Jack get her true body back, a quest that sees them all plunge into the Gothic fantasyland the Moors, where mad scientists pit their strengths against decadent vampires and strange sects worship ancient sea monsters.

It has to be said that this is one hell of a premise. And its execution is at least appropriately toothsome: by which I mean that it has a faintly addictive quality that keeps one racing nicely through the text. The camaraderie between the students of the Home for Wayward Children is also quite nice: as I said earlier this week in my review of Sarah Gailey’s Upright Women Wanted, these children are, in the world of the novella, effectively marginalised by their fantastical experiences (which few of the adults in their lives can understand), and that fictional marginalisation manifests in some cases as real-world marginalisation: Jack is gay and has OCD; Kade, one of the current students who embarks on the quest to help her, is trans; Sumi, another student, is Japanese. So, while the Home functions as a place where those who have lost the lands they loved can find solidarity and understanding, it also, by extension, functions as a space where those with real-world marginalisations receive support and acceptance. In that respect, it, like Gailey’s text, has aspects of wish fulfilment: every character in McGuire’s novella, apart from the obvious baddies (who are very obvious indeed) is genuinely trying their best to be a good person and a supportive friend.

That is, I guess, my problem with Come Tumbling Down, one of the key reasons it’s failed to take root in my imagination: it’s all very…straightforward. It is, at all times, obvious who we are supposed to root for. It’s obvious what the right way to be supportive is. (There is no point, for example, at which different needs clash.) In fact, despite its representation of marginalised identities, it feels distinctly under-politicised, like its speculative metaphors could be better deployed to create real-world meanings.

This, I think, is something that afflicts all of McGuire’s work, including her influential Toby Daye series: she knows her mythology, she’s not afraid to hurt her characters, but she never quite gives her work the political resonance or complexity it needs to be truly memorable. Ultimately, Come Tumbling Down is fine. It was a fun enough read at the time. But I would have liked – a little more oomph.

Review: Ring Shout

As mainstream SFF continues to reckon with its own colonial legacy, one author who’s receiving particular scrutiny is the early twentieth century horror author and notorious racist H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft’s brand of cosmic dread, which is partially characterised by a fear of monstrous embodiment (think of be-tentacled Cthulhu, or the shoggoths, essentially giant amorphous lumps of flesh the mere sight of which drives multiple characters mad), is inseparable from his bigotry: the horror we encounter in his work is all too often the horror of miscegenation, of being in proximity to an often racialised, monstrous Other.

And yet his influence on the genre is inescapable: not only have his works, which are now probably in the public domain and which Lovecraft himself always saw as fair game for transformative fan interpretation, inspired a plethora of directly imitative novels, short stories and games, his ideas and motifs are visible throughout modern fantasy, in everything from the incomprehensible, brutal physicality on display in many of China Mieville’s novels to the nameless, indifferent menace that lies beyond the Wall in George R.R. Martin’s fictional world of Westeros.

So: where, as SFF readers and writers, do we go from here? P. Djèlí Clark provides a possible answer in his 2020 novella Ring Shout. The book’s protagonist, Maryse Boudreaux, is a 1920s Black woman with a magical sword who hunts Ku Kluxes: alien horrors who look just like human Klansmen, until they don’t. These monsters, and the cosmic forces that control them, have a demonic plan: to use the power of white people’s hate to drag themselves into our world, deploying the racist film The Birth of a Nation as a tool to stoke up that hate.

Opposed to the forces of evil are Black cultural traditions: the magic generated by the titular ring shouts, which the Gullah woman Nana Jean distils into a liquid that Maryse and her comrades-in-arms use as protection against the Ku Kluxes. The ring shouts are also connected to the magic in Maryse’s sword, which houses the spirits of those who sold their fellows to white slavers in Africa, who are atoning for their actions by playing a part in destroying the Ku Kluxes.

Given the Ku Kluxes’ clear Lovecraftian antecedents, we can, I think, read this opposition as metatextual – especially given the novella’s explicit recognition of how pieces of media like The Birth of a Nation shape cultural attitudes. In this schema, then, the Ku Kluxes aren’t just inspired by Lovecraft’s works – they stand for them: the way that they use hate to boost their power is analogous to how Lovecraft’s racism provides the impetus for his cosmic horror. And on the opposite side we have a specifically Black mode of speculative fiction, one powered not by hate but by shared heritage and a shared cultural unity.

Doesn’t everyone love a bit of metatextuality? As a textual strategy, this is a small piece of genius: coopting the power of Lovecraft’s writing, including the bigotry that gives it that power, in order to reject it and its legacy utterly. The novella both benefits from Lovecraft’s legacy and repudiates it: charting a path forward, perhaps, for modern fantasy. Clark’s novel A Master of Djinn is up for a Hugo award this year; I’m looking forward to seeing what he does in it.

Review: Glamour in Glass

A few months ago, in my review of Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Relentless Moon, the second entry in her Lady Astronaut series, I characterised her work as: “competent”. It’s a characterisation that holds, I think, for her earlier novel Glamour in Glass, follow-up to her Regency fantasy romance Shades of Milk and Honey.

The novel’s set in an alternate version of the early nineteenth century in which “glamour”, the art of weaving illusions, is one of the “accomplishments” considered core to a marriageable gentlewoman’s repertoire. There are, however, also male glamourists, who, despite being seen as vaguely disreputable for specialising in an art that’s traditionally gendered female, are also the only ones permitted by society to practice it meaningfully, to get paid for doing it, to research new techniques in it, and to become authorities on its use and how it works. Its protagonist, Jane, is a gentlewoman, highly skilled at glamour, who’s married to a prominent male glamourist called Vincent. The pair are sent by the Prince Regent, for whom Vincent has completed work in the past, to Belgium, where tensions are rising as Napoleon pushes further into Europe.

The novel’s interests, then, are essentially feminist ones: the contested social status of glamour, as an activity that’s regarded as the preserve of women but also one that women are not allowed to specialise in, is intended to point up the double standards that have dogged women (and people who are perceived to be women) for most of history. Jane is at least as skilled a glamourist as her husband, but her gender prevents her from being recognised for her talent, or even being able to practice it in any sort of public way. Her plight is exacerbated by the fact that, fairly on in the novel, she becomes pregnant: performing glamour during pregnancy is dangerous for the foetus, meaning that Jane is not only socially but also physically incapable of partaking in the work she’s best at. Again, there’s clearly some commentary going on here about the ways in which women have historically been disadvantaged in their pursuit of meaningful achievement. Jane’s inability to perform glamour while pregnant mirrors the way in which pregnancy and birth have been used as excuses to hold women back in the workplace in more recent periods of history. The danger to Jane’s pregnancy is based in fact, not cultural prejudice, as an event later in the novel makes clear. But Regency cultural attitudes towards pregnancy as a thing that women are expected to undergo multiple times (Pride and Prejudice‘s Mrs Bennet has, remember, five daughters) – as something fundamental to the purpose of marriage itself – multiply that biological disadvantage, restricting women’s options even further.

Which is good analysis, as far as it goes; the problem is that it doesn’t go particularly far. It is, to be honest, fairly obvious that women’s choices were severely limited in the Regency period; I mean, Austen herself was pointing this out at the time. And Kowal isn’t really interested in delving any deeper into the gender politics of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, or into what women of the time thought about them: Jane is (apart from some notable exceptions, such as when she is shocked by a French woman’s very mild indiscretion) a thoroughly modern heroine, particularly in her attitudes towards the confinements of pregnancy and childbirth. Too, Kowal restricts her social critique to the plight of middle-class white women: while the servant class is marginally more visible than it is in Austen’s novels, there’s little exploration of how the patriarchy affects them; and there are no characters at all who are not white. What I’m trying to say is that these are all very safe choices Kowal is making; vaguely progressive without being very interesting.

This middle-of-the-road approach to storytelling makes itself known in the way Kowal structures her narrative, too. Much of the plot’s tensions arise from that age-old romcom trope of romantic leads failing, for one reason or another, to communicate effectively: this can be done well, of course, but here it’s just mildly enraging. And many of the plot’s twists are telegraphed quite obviously in advance, making for a read that’s a little…predictable, to say the least. Again, foreshadowing is something that’s very effective in the right hands, and Kowal’s aren’t exactly the wrong hands; it’s just that her construction lines, as it were, are very visible on the page. The choices that she’s making are exactly the ones that you’d expect a competent author who’s familiar with the tropes and structures that work well in her chosen genre to make.

These issues – the vaguely liberal but ultimately uninspired politics, the transparent plot-construction – are all things that get better in Kowal’s later work but that never entirely go away. For all that she’s currently a critical darling in SFF circles, a frequent presence on Hugo nomination lists at least, her work is very far from the best of what the genre has to offer. Readable, sure; entertaining, usually. But still: never better than competent.

Review: The Winter Long

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

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

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

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

Review: The Angel of the Crows

Is steampunk dead? It’s a question that’s been rattling around in genre circles for a good ten years, ever since the aesthetic began to make its way out of the subculture and into the mainstream, popping up on haute couture catwalks, in blockbuster films and in music videos by major artists. (Typing “steampunk” into Etsy returns more than 250,000 results.) The problem is clearly not one of waning interest, but rather the opposite: smeared across the world’s media, permeating the world’s markets, have the signs and signifiers of steampunk – cogs, gears, steam engines, bustles, corsets and pocket watches – been emptied of their meaning, aestheticised in the purest sense? Has steampunk lost its (probably already very dubious) punk credentials?

For me, the answer is: indubitably yes. In some cases. Including that of Katherine Addison’s Sherlock-wingfic-turned-respectable-SFF-novel The Angel of the Crows, which transplants Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories into a fantastical version of Victorian London in which werewolves, vampires and ghosts stalk the streets alongside Jack the Ripper. Addison’s Sherlock figure – here named Crow – is an angel, in a world where such beings must remain within specific buildings to retain their identities and individualities; Crow has got around this rule by salvaging a piece of banister from his original residence, and as a result has a somewhat seedy reputation among other angels (it surely doesn’t help that he has taken the rather grandiose title “the Angel of London”). Watson – dubbed J.H. Doyle here for what I suspect are copyright reasons – remains a retired army doctor, except that the wounds the war has left them with are metaphysical rather than material: an encounter with a fallen angel has turned them into an (unregistered, illegal). hellhound. Predictably enough, Crow and Doyle move in together, largely because they are the only people who can tolerate each other, and Doyle becomes drawn into Crow’s hobby-slash-occupation of solving intricate and unusual crimes.

The plots here are all pretty familiar, notwithstanding the supernatural elements: Addison takes us on a Greatest Hits tour of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, from A Study in Scarlet to “The Speckled Band”, leaving motivations, clues and occasionally entire narratives intact. This is an episodic novel, with a vague overarching structure binding it all together: those looking for tight, efficient plotting should probably go elsewhere. The major innovation that Addison has made here is in introducing queer representation (as opposed to the blatant queerbaiting that went on in her source text, the BBC TV series Sherlock): Doyle, as I’ve already intimated, is some flavour of genderqueer, and Crow is vaguely transmasculine. It’s difficult to be definitive about their identities, because Addison herself isn’t: the novel is narrated in the first person by Doyle, no pronoun is ever used to refer to them, they live as a man but explicitly refer to themself as “not a man”; similarly, the masc-presenting Crow tells Doyle that angels are “all female…Insofar as it makes sense to apply gender to asexual beings”, but that “human beings give [angels]…gender”. Electra Pritchett suggests here, pretty compellingly, that Addison is confusing concepts of gender, sex and sexuality, which is one reason why it’s so difficult to make out how to read Crow and Doyle.

Does this queering of these two canonical characters, then, put the punk into Addison’s steampunk setting? Well…not for me: partly because of Addison’s somewhat clumsy handling of their queerness (probably we could argue that the confusion around their transness has to do with the limited vocabulary a Victorian person would have had available to express these concepts, but frankly…this is a novel with hellhounds and angels in it, it’s not THAT committed to historical accuracy), and partly because she doesn’t do a whole lot with it. There is, for example, no real examination of traditional gender roles in Victorian society. And pretty much everything else about this novel is fairly, hmm, unremarkable given the setting and its genre. Crow and Doyle are comfortably middle-class, if occasionally strapped for cash. They do run across the spectre of Victorian colonial imperialism at least once, but not in a way that significantly disturbs the structure or mood of the text. Addison attempts nothing particularly notable with her prose or her plots; generally, the novel isn’t creating any form of productive tension for the reader to rub up against.

The result is, to be fair, a thoroughly enjoyable one: I am not immune to the aesthetic pleasures of steampunk, that warm immersion in a romanticised past, in the comfortingly familiar promises of fog-shrouded London streets where all manner of creatures may lurk. I would happily read a sequel, or two, or five; and seeing queerness represented in this sort of story is always a small joy, even if it is awkwardly done. But throughout my reading of The Angel of the Crows, and beyond, I found myself wondering what the purpose of it all was; what Addison was trying to say. This is steampunk without its bite, steampunk as consolatory, familiar, a sanitised bourgeois fantasy of what was in reality a profoundly oppressive age. This is steampunk-as-zombie: not dead, but not truly alive either.

Review: Black Sun

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

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

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

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

Review: Hild

How did the prominent seventh century abbess Saint Hilda of Whitby, advisor of kings, rise to prominence from a relatively obscure position in the court of her great-uncle Edwin, the ruler of what is now Yorkshire? That’s the question Nicola Griffith seeks (partially) to answer in her 2013 novel Hild, which follows the title character from her very early childhood in her father’s home to her eventual, inevitable political marriage. In between, she learns to use her considerable powers of observation and deduction to gain status in Edwin’s court, pushing against the boundaries and restrictions placed on women in her society to obtain a reputation as a seer and witch.

Although it’s pretty resolutely not fantastical – Hild is read as magical by her contemporaries only because she’s surrounded by men who cannot or will not contemplate the patterns at work in the world around them – it certainly seems to have been received as fantasy-adjacent by a number of audiences: as well as featuring in the Strange Horizons book club in 2015, it was nominated for the Nebula and John W. Campbell Memorial awards, and is a Tiptree Honor book. One of the reasons for this, I’d suggest, is that it plunges readers into the unfamiliar world that is seventh century England in a way that’s very similar to how some high fantasy writers plunge their readers into their secondary worlds. Griffith doesn’t spend any time holding our hands or, really, explaining the convoluted sociopolitical landscape her characters find themselves in; instead, she expects us to pick up concepts and language as we go. The reading protocols that are useful in interpreting Hild are the ones that are useful in interpreting high fantasy texts.

What’s this fantastic sensibility in service of? Hild is a slow, patient text, very interested in the texture of early medieval life, in accordance with its heroine’s penchant for quiet, intense observation. Griffith has invented or extrapolated much of this detail, owing to a lack of evidence, textual or material, about this period, which is, I suppose, another way that Hild is like a fantasy epic: the world here has been deliberately built to reflect the author’s aesthetic preoccupations, rather than accurately representing a historical reality, and yet at the same time it’s invested in concealing its constructedness. It wants you to inhabit its world fully, along with its protagonist, taking in all that vital sensory detail that allows her to predict what’s going to happen next. A good example of Griffith’s construction of her novel’s world is what she calls the gemaecce: taken from the Old English term gemaecca, meaning “one of a pair, companion, mate”, the term in Griffith’s novel denotes a close, almost familial pairing between two women. This invention allows Griffith to explore how Hild benefits from relationships with people of different genders, and to dig into the helplessness and isolation that her society inflicts upon women. Because I, like most readers, know very little about social structures in seventh century Britain, I didn’t realise this was made up until I read Griffith’s author’s note at the back of the book: I think the text relies on this knowledge gap in quite a lot of cases for its verisimilitude.

The overall effect, anyway, of this fantastic approach to historical fiction is, for me at least, a sense of estrangement: the text has none of the coziness I associate with traditional historical fiction. Rather, in treating the past like a fantasy world, it conveys the alienness of that past. We know so little about seventh century Britain that it might as well be a fantasy world. And also: seventh century Britain is so distant from us in every way – chronologically, culturally – as to be virtually unrecognisable anyway. The past, as L.P. Hartley said, is a different country. Except, not just a different country: a different world.

Which is not to say that the themes Hild is working with are wholly unfamiliar: like all texts, it is responding primarily to the occupations of the moment. I’ve talked a little already about its examination of female power and its limits; it’s also interested in sexuality, casting Hild as bisexual and her society as one that cares not so much about who people sleep with as who they are married to. This reading of early medieval sexual politics is as much a fantasy as the concept of gemaecce, as Griffith again admits at the end of the book:

“there’s no evidence for anything, sexually, in early seventh-century northern Britain. Nothing. No material culture and no text.”

The motivation for this invention is similarly obvious: Griffith is engaged, as many authors of historical fiction and historical SFF are at the moment, in rewriting the marginalised into history, challenging established hegemonic narratives that seek to erase the existence of (in this case) women and queer folk. And, again, we can see how the gap in common knowledge about the seventh century both plays into the seeming verisimilitude of Griffith’s setting and obscures its constructedness. That sense of alienation, of distance from the past, is a manufactured thing; by which I mean it’s manufactured to bring prominence to concerns that seventh century people may not have thought about at all. (I mean: if there is no textual or material evidence about sexuality in this period, perhaps that’s an indication that it just wasn’t a point of contention or interest?)

So: does Hild provide a convincing origin story for Hilda of Whitby? I’m not sure. Certainly it is a compelling portrait of an extraordinary woman seizing what power she can in a rigidly patriarchal society against a rapidly shifting sociocultural background riven by internecine political conflicts. It’s a novel that, to me, rewards and demands patient attention, rather than something to race through and admire the shape of. But its sensibilities – its prizing of rational deduction, its interest in matters of sex – are a little too modern to ring quite true. It’ll be interesting to see what the long-awaited sequel, Menewood, brings.

Film Review: Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga

In 2018, two years into the presidency of Donald Trump, a time of deepening division and despair among liberal Westerners, American speculative fiction author Catherynne M. Valente released a novel called Space Opera in which a washed-up glam rock superstar named Decibel Jones competes in an intergalactic version of Eurovision in order to save humanity from annihilation. The novel was arguably Valente’s biggest success to date, earning her a Hugo nomination, a film deal and much wider recognition in the fandom than she’d previously achieved.

2018 was also the year when American comedian and actor Will Ferrell began work on Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, a straight-to-Netflix feature film starring Ferrell and Rachel McAdams as an Icelandic musical duo who, through a combination of unlikely circumstance and outright political shenanigans, find themselves representing their country at, well, Eurovision. This, too, was something of a surprise success when it finally came out in 2020, in the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic: thanks largely to a campaign by author Seanan McGuire, it was actually nominated for a Hugo award for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form, on the strength of a couple of minor speculative elements and, one suspects, its thematic links with Space Opera.

Despite some pretty hokey romance-movie assumptions – like the default heterosexuality that sees someone like Will Ferrell’s Lars ending up with the apparently much younger Sigrit (his bandmate, played by McAdams), without any real explanation as to why they like each other In That Way – the film is actually genuinely quite delightful. Ferrell and McAdams convey a kind of bumbling homespun charm that makes it more or less impossible not to root for their characters: Sigrit’s half-sincere belief in elves is a nice touch, as is the possible-but-never-confirmed existence of those elves – it’s a little oddball/magical-realist in a way I’ve not seen before in a commercial film, lending a sort of gentle earnestness to The Story of Fire Saga that grounds its camper, glitzier moments, like the vertiginous scene where a posse of former Eurovision contestants join Lars and Sigrit in performing a mash-up of pop hits at a decadent private party.

The film’s ending is also nicely done: like Valente’s novel, it avoids the cliched narrative trap of suggesting that passion alone is enough to win Eurovision, instead opting for a quieter resolution that emphasises the communal value of music, its power to bring people together in joy. It’s a choice that gets to the heart of why I think these stories are popular: in times when so much is uncertain, it’s a pleasure to plunge into these glamorous, over-the-top, larger-than-life worlds; to glory in the unashamedly, unironically heartfelt joy of just singing together, celebrating and listening to music together. The Story of Fire Saga is ridiculous, of course. But that’s why it’s good.

Review: The Lost Future of Pepperharrow

This review contains spoilers.

The Lost Future of PepperharrowIt’s 1888. Russian ships are squaring up to the Japanese navy, and Great Britain is contemplating whether to intervene. Against this alt-historical backdrop, clairvoyant and Japanese nobleman Mori, his lover Thaniel (a translator for the British Foreign Office) and their adopted daughter Six travel to Tokyo to investigate reports of ghosts appearing in the British consulate there.

Natasha Pulley’s The Lost Future of Pepperharrow is the sequel to her well-received The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, which, in the interests of full transparency, I should mention I have not read (although it exists in my house and I expect I will get round to reading it at some point). As I was gathering my thoughts on what I wanted to say about it, I stumbled upon this essay about the novel’s titular character, Takika Pepperharrow – technically Mori’s wife (theirs being a marriage of convenience) and something of an antagonist throughout the novel. The writer argues that the novel fails Pepperharrow by having her long and complex history with Mori conclude in an act of self-sacrifice that benefits both him and Thaniel; that, in other words, Pulley kills off a nuanced female character in service to the narrative arcs of two male ones.

It’s hard to argue with this conclusion. Well, in fact it’s impossible: that is precisely what happens in The Lost Future of Pepperharrow. And, look, gender is something I’m very interested in as a reader: I’ve deliberately stopped engaging with litfic novels that treat female characters with contempt; I track the number of books I read by female and non-binary authors. And yet, this wasn’t an aspect of the narrative that particularly stuck out to me, and I’m interested in why that is.

Partly, I suspect, it’s because its representation of other groups traditionally marginalised by Western literary culture is interesting and thoughtful. Thaniel and Mori are a gay couple in a historical period that is generally depicted as being hostile to queer relationships (Pulley portrays homosexuality as being marginally more acceptable in Meiji-era Japan than in Victorian England; I have no idea whether that’s an accurate portrayal); Six is clearly autistic, again in a context where the concept of neurodiversity does not really exist. As Pulley explains in an afterword, the speech of her Japanese characters is rendered in informal English in a bid to represent the formality registers they’re using in their own language. (Whether or not this is a successful or a desirable approach is debatable – I’ve talked before about the importance of not representing the past as simply a reskinned version of the present – but it’s clearly been thought about, and that’s something I can respect.) And it’s also good to see a steampunk story set in a non-Western country that it doesn’t attempt to exoticise.

There’s something lulling, as well, about Pulley’s prose, which is plangent, straightforward and clear; the sort of prose that tells you, in a wistful “what are we going to do about humanity” sort of way, exactly what to think about the events of the story:

… it was just as dangerous to teach a little girl that one foot wrong would mean a lunatic and a dungeon. It made it sound inevitable, whereas if you were brought up safe in the knowledge that people were supposed to be good, you approached the bad ones with a healthy fury that might just see you out of the dungeon.

Finally, the quality of Mori and Thaniel’s relationship makes the novel faintly addictive: although they’re both adults, their inability to communicate their feelings for each other for fear of rejection feels much more YA. Thus Thaniel spends much of the novel convinced that Mori doesn’t love him and just keeps him around because he’s entertaining (?); by the end, we discover that Mori is similarly convinced that Thaniel has been staying with him because he gets a free room out of the arrangement. It’s a little eyeroll-y written down like that, but the romantic tension generated by this set-up acts as an effective hook: certainly I was convinced that Thaniel was mistaken and desperate for him to realise it.

My point here is that the many sweet and charming things I found in The Lost Future of Pepperharrow for me outweighed the undoubtedly problematic way in which it treats its titular character. That’s partly for reasons of textual technique – the accessible prose, the rom-com love story – but it’s also partly because of my own preferences and interests as a reader (I’m marginally more interested in LGBT+ rep than in female rep at this point in time). I mean; this is quite obvious; we are all postmodernists now. But it’s interesting nonetheless, to interrogate what makes my reading of a particular text different to someone else’s, and to think about why that might be.

I don’t, however, want to over-egg how much I enjoyed The Lost Future of Pepperharrow: ultimately, for me, its sweetness made it too easy and unchallenging a read. I liked it while I was reading it; I appreciated its setting and its treatment of marginalised identities; but it’s not a novel I think about very much. It was fine. Your reading may vary.

2021 Roundup

Another weird year in reading, this one: with the libraries closed again until April, a good third of the books I read this year were re-reads. Re-reading is a pleasure of its own, of course, but what it doesn’t bring is the shock of the new, the brilliant surprise of discovering something you didn’t know existed. As a result, I found it difficult this year even to identify ten new-to-me books that I thought were top-tier favourites; normally I’m whittling down a list of about fifteen.

Here they are, anyway: my top ten reads of 2021; and, afterwards, some spreadsheet stats.

Top Ten Books of 2021

  1. Utopia Avenue – David Mitchell (2020). This mostly-realist tale of a fictional 60s band has some misfires – most notably its somewhat schlocky speculative element – but its characters are so vivid, so humanly flawed, that you can’t help but love it. Dean, Griff, Elf, Jasper and Levon all – still! – feel like friends of my heart; this is a truly warm and wonderful novel.
  2. Hild – Nicola Griffith (2014). It took me twelve days to read this 550-page novel, and I’m a fast reader. Part of what makes it a slow read is its almost speculative treatment of its seventh-century setting: it plunges the modern reader into a very alien cultural and social milieu, asking us to keep up with political divisions and developments that we know almost nothing about, using unfamiliar terms that it doesn’t stop to explain. And part of it is that Hild herself gains power in a hostile society by observing, quietly, the movements and currents of the world around her. It made me want to do the same: to pay attention; to read slowly and carefully and thoughtfully. One of those rare books that changes your worldview as you read.
  3. The Water DancerTa-Nehisi Coates (2019). Another novel that applies speculative techniques to the stuff of realism; in this case, Virginian slavery. I loved Coates’ lyrical, supple prose, and his use of fantasy to point up the ways in which his enslaved characters are estranged from their own history. For me, it’s a novel that achieved what Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad did not.
  4. Possession – A.S. Byatt (1990). I was never not going to like this layered, brilliant tale of academic discovery and forbidden romance. It just works on so many levels: the tone-perfect pastiche of Victorian poetry; the exploration of intellectual and romantic possession; the complex, fraught relationships it charts between its various pairs of lovers. A novel to curl up into and to savour.
  5. Unconquerable Sun – Kate Elliott (2020). This take on “Alexander the Great in space” is just really solid, enjoyable SF. The worldbuilding has texture and substance; the text resists easy moralities; queerness is an expected and unremarkable aspect of its fictional society. Deeply satisfying.
  6. Shriek: An Afterword Jeff Vandermeer (2006). I didn’t know much about Shriek before I started reading it, and I found it absolutely fascinating. The fictional city of Ambergris is underlain by a fungoid society that is terrifying in its absolute illegibility. There are shades of China Mieville here, but Vandermeer’s work is more personal, more focused on its twin protagonists, and so that sense of the abcanny, and the threat of it, is magnified. I’m excited to read more about Ambergris.
  7. The Unreal and the Real Volume 2: Outer Space, Inner Lands – Ursula K. le Guin (2012). I read this collection of short stories in a day, travelling, an immersion that never became wearing. So many of these stories are linked, drawn from le Guin’s Hainish Cycle (although a few stand on their own, and one of them is set in the Earthsea universe), but they all explore very different ways of being and living. I don’t think I’d ever quite realised how transformative le Guin’s work is before: the collection made me think of le Guin’s quote about how capitalism feels as inescapable as the divine right of kings once did, and it really bears out that optimism, that idea that it might be possible to imagine a new kind of society into existence.
  8. Hot HeadSimon Ings (1992). My last read of 2021, this was another one that came as a pleasant surprise. Set in a cyberpunk future in which the Singularity is about to be invented, it’s deeply engaged with questions of identity, of storymaking and of cultural cohesion. Despite its early 90s publication date, it also features a Muslim protagonist and multiple queer characters. Like many debut novels, it’s a little uneven, but there are some interesting ideas here.
  9. Infidel – Kameron Hurley (2011). I’ve been looking for this novel in libraries and bookshops for literal years; what a pleasure finally to find it! Hurley’s later work doesn’t appeal to me, but the terse, punchy prose and apocalyptic desertscapes of her Bel Dame trilogy really do. Another SF novel that’s just – fun.
  10. Hamnet – Maggie O’Farrell (2020). A novel about the family that Shakespeare left at home in Stratford as he achieved fame and fortune in London, Hamnet is another litfic work that’s also a little bit speculative. In this case, the speculative elements are there to immerse us in a worldview very different from the modern one; a worldview that contained the supernatural, the otherworldly, as accepted fact. It’s a technique I’ve always enjoyed; and I also like O’Farrell’s close attention to domestic life in this time period, the textures and smells of 16th-century England.

Spreadsheet stats

  • I read 89 books in 2021; much less than last year’s anomalous 121.
  • The longest book I read was my mammoth collected edition of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast Trilogy, at 953 pages; the shortest was Thomas Pynchon’s snappy The Crying of Lot 49, at just 125. Both were re-reads. In all I read 35,787 pages in 2021, significantly down from last year’s whopping 41,837.
  • The oldest book I read in 2021 was Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, another re-read and first published in 1813. The average age of the books I read in 2021 was 19, up from last year’s 12.
  • Genre: 43% of the books I read in 2021 were fantasy, down from 45% last year. Just 19% were science fiction, down from 26% last year. In fact, for the first time since I started recording my reading in 2014, I read more litfic than SF this year: 22% (last year only 8% of the books I read were litfic). The remaining 16% consists of four historical novels, four classics, three non-fiction books, two contemporaries, a Granta anthology and a book of poetry (Catherynne M. Valente’s A Guide to Folktales in Fragile Dialects).
  • As I mentioned earlier, almost a third of the books I read in 2021 were re-reads: 29%, considerably up from last year’s 9%.
  • 60% of the books I read in 2021 were by women and non-binary people – the same as in 2020.
  • 19% of the books I read in 2021 were by people of colour – slightly up from last year’s 18%.
  • And 19% of the books I read in 2021 were by queer authors – up from last year’s 15%.