Tag: fantasy

Review: Piranesi

This review contains spoilers.

PiranesiI realised that the search for the Knowledge has encouraged us to think of the House as if it were a sort of riddle to be unravelled, a text to be interpreted, and that if ever we discover the Knowledge, then it will be as if the Value has been wrested from the House and all that remains will be mere scenery.

Knowledge is the concept that lies at the heart of Susanna Clarke’s second novel Piranesi, a startlingly controlled follow-up to her 780-page fantasy classic Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. The eponymous protagonist of this slim little novel inhabits a vast and largely empty House consisting of endless receding hallways filled with statues. The lower halls are flooded, and the clouds in the upper halls produce rain; Piranesi lives off the seaweed and shellfish he finds in the lower halls, and spends his time exploring the House and observing its seasons and the habits of the birds that dwell there. He believes that there are just 15 people who have ever lived, counting himself, the 13 skeletons he’s discovered in various parts of the House, and the Other.

The Other’s appearance on page 21 of the novel marks an important shift in the narrative: it’s the first time we really become aware that Piranesi doesn’t have the full picture; the first time that we, with our privileged frame of reference, know more than him. The Other has a smartphone, which Piranesi recognises only as a “shining device”; he wears a smart wool suit, a fact which jars against our understanding of the subsistence lifestyle Piranesi is scratching out in the House; and he mentions the word “Battersea”, which Piranesi doesn’t recognise at all, but which British readers will know as a landmark from our own world. In short, it’s fairly clear to us that the Other is lying to Piranesi for his own ends.

What those ends are becomes clear fairly quickly: the Other believes that the House can give him access to strange and mysterious powers if he can only find the right ritual to perform to make it happen. The passage I quoted at the start of this review sets out Piranesi’s musings when the Other enlists him in this search, and it illustrates one of the modes of knowing with which the novel is concerned: a mode in which knowledge is useful as a means to an end. It’s implicitly contrasted with the way that Piranesi approaches the acquisition of knowledge: he explores and observes the House for the sake of the knowledge itself, as an act of veneration and almost of worship. “The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite,” Piranesi tells us.

It’s clear, I think, which mode of knowing Clarke thinks is preferable. The Other’s search for ultimate power makes him selfish (he doesn’t notice for almost a year that Piranesi’s shoes have worn out) and unable to appreciate the beauty of the House; and his erstwhile academic mentor, Laurence Arne-Sayles, who researches ancient rituals in order, similarly, to rediscover sources of power, is outright evil. Piranesi’s curiosity about the world, meanwhile, allows him to adapt to his environment and even thrive in it; it’s part of what helps him survive the trauma of being kidnapped and trapped in the House for years, a trauma he doesn’t even remember.

But this value system is complicated by the structure of the novel and the way Clarke takes advantage of our generic expectations. The shift in how much we know relative to Piranesi that happens when the Other enters the narrative essentially aligns us with the Other even as we start to suspect his motives, because he is a representative of our world and Piranesi isn’t; because the fact that he brings smartphones and wool suits and Battersea into the alien world of the House cues us to start reading the novel differently, as inhabitants of the real world rather than as fantasy readers plunged into an unfamiliar secondary world. We start reading it in the same way that the Other sees the House: not for its own sake, but in search of answers, to solve the puzzle of the House and of Piranesi’s place in it. Who is the Other, and why is he lying to Piranesi? Why does he never spend more than an hour in the House? Who is the mysterious 16 (the sixteenth person to enter the House) and why does the Other warn Piranesi away from them?

Clarke, it seems to me, deliberately encourages this mode of reading in her pacing, the way she gradually reveals just enough information to keep us wanting more without ever dumping enough for us to relax. The novel unfolds, in other words, like a thriller, propulsive and efficient, as we discover the House’s secrets and the magnitude of the events that led Piranesi there. The world that Clarke builds in it has a spectacular ruined grandeur, a misty beauty, but she doesn’t encourage us to linger in it as Piranesi does.

There’s also the problem that Piranesi’s open-mindedness is a direct product of trauma: he was essentially an entirely different person before he entered the House, and that person is now lost. And his absolute trust in the House leaves him open to the Other’s manipulation: he assumes that the Other has nicer stuff than he does because the House gives it to him, rather than realising that the Other has come from outside (although it’s not clear how much of this effect is down to the amnesia that the House induces in the humans who enter it). So although Piranesi’s search for knowledge for its own sake – which is specifically aligned with ancient modes of knowing and relating to the world – is philosophically preferable to the Other’s and Arne-Sayles’ search for power, I think part of the melancholy of Clarke’s story comes from the fact that Piranesi’s approach struggles to survive contact with modernity.

The novel, then, picks up on a theme prominent in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell – that of the disenchantment of the world and the loss of wonder that modernity has brought in its wake. The twin protagonists of the earlier novel were engaged in the project of reenchanting their Regency milieu. Perhaps Piranesi, with his open-hearted kindness and generosity, can do the same for us.

Review: Dzur

DzurSomething that’s interesting about how Steven Brust’s Dzur tends to be received is that, while people tend not to have a lot to say about the book (the top-rated reviews on Goodreads are mostly only two to three paragraphs long), they do all mention the food. The tenth book in Brust’s fantasy series following the adventures of wisecracking assassin Vlad Taltos, Dzur has a fairly complicated and not all that memorable plot to do with Vlad’s ex-wife Cawti and the criminal gang (the Jhereg, in Brust’s nomenclature) attempting to move in on her turf, whom Vlad must placate, persuade and otherwise buy off so they’ll leave her alone. It’s framed, though, by a seven-course meal at Valabar’s, Vlad’s favourite restaurant: each chapter is preceded by a description of one of the courses, or of the wine Vlad and his dining companions are drinking, or of the petits-fours they’re served.

This series has always been interested in food: Vlad is never far from a good meal, or a glass of fine wine; and he’s a handy cook, too. There’s something very practical about this trait of his: while he enjoys good food, and recognises bad, he’s not a food snob – he’s just as happy eating sausages and flatbread from a street stall as he is at Valabar’s. He reads like someone who enjoys food because he’s known what it likes to be really hungry; his interest in food, in other words, is about survival.

And so Brust’s decision to pair the meal at Valabar’s with this complex, political plot about Jhereg infighting and organised crime is saying something very interesting about the world in which Vlad moves. The extortion and bribery that Vlad and his associates engage in – activities that Cawti eschews, which is partly why the Jhereg are threatening her position – are, like the simple elemental pleasures of eating, a matter of survival.

This ties in, I think, to the series’ examination of class: Vlad, as a human in a world of elf-like Dragaerans, is a member of a barely-tolerated underclass; as such, unlike the Dragaeran Cawti, he doesn’t have the luxury of choosing a less illegal approach to life, certainly if he wants to stay alive.

It’s these revelations about the way that Dragaeran society works, and the various ways its class structures are enforced, that makes these novels interesting: I’m not particularly grabbed by Brust’s twisty, concept-heavy plots, which often rely on the reader remembering conversations and details from a hundred pages ago that weren’t at the time flagged as being of particular import or interest. Vlad’s ambiguous social position, as a member of a disenfranchised minority who’s nevertheless achieved a measure of influence in Dragaeran society, makes him a fascinating protagonist, as does his failure to adhere to standard expectations for a lead character in a fantasy novel, even an amoral one. Ultimately, though, while I find the Vlad Taltos books conceptually energising, and I appreciate what Brust’s trying to do in them, the actual reading experience never quite seems to deliver; I’m not sure that Vlad’s living up to his full potential.

Review: An Artificial Night

This review contains spoilers.

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

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

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

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

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

Review: A Local Habitation

This review contains spoilers.

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

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

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

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

Review: The Unspoken Name

The Unspoken NameA.K. Larkwood’s debut novel The Unspoken Name has gained some moderate attention in genre circles this year, despite reviews that tend towards the mixed: Larkwood’s up for the Astounding Award for Best New Writer, and her novel seems to have had a fair publicity effort behind it. It’s being talked about, is what I’m saying. What’s interesting is that nobody seems to be talking about it as YA, when it shares a lot of DNA – in terms of theme and approach – with novels like Kristin Cashore’s undoubtedly YA Graceling series.

Our teenage protagonist, Csorwe, has lived all her life knowing when it will end: on her fourteenth birthday, when she’ll be sent to the sanctuary of the Unspoken God, to die as his Chosen Bride. However, on the very threshold of his sanctuary, she’s offered a way out: to become an apprentice to the wizard Belthandros Sethennai, and to help him find the Reliquary of Pentravesse, an object of great power that he’s been hunting for a while.

This opening sets us up to expect a certain type of novel: a straightforward quest narrative, perhaps, with large but surmountable obstacles along the way, and a clear character arc that sees Csorwe come into her own. But part of what Larkwood’s doing here is about undercutting such expectations; and instead of a traditional, coherent quest structure, we get something that’s much more episodic and bitty. The narrative makes years-long time jumps into Csorwe’s future, moves from setting to setting just when we’ve started getting comfortable; if this stop-start structure didn’t so neatly underscore Csorwe’s actual character journey, about which more in a minute, I’d say Larkwood was having trouble knowing where to start her novel, as many novice writers do. But our narrative expectations are undermined in other ways too. The Reliquary of Pentravesse turns out to be a bit of a red herring, in terms of what the narrative’s actually interested in; Belthandros Sethennai is no kindly Gandalf, but instead a self-involved and somewhat manipulative employer.

This narrative hesitancy – the way it starts down paths that then prove to be red herrings – is why I’m tempted to read the novel as YA: it mirrors Csorwe’s own stops and starts as she tries to figure out who she is, independent of the various adults in her life trying to mould her into a specific image – the submissive sacrificial bride of the Unspoken God; the brutal, efficient mercenary Sethennai would like her to be. The novel as a whole, then, speaks to typical YA concerns about how to function in society independently of what your parents (or parental figures) want for you; how to define yourself in the face of perhaps-oppressive social expectations. I mentioned Kristin Cashore’s Graceling novels above: in The Unspoken Name Larkwood seems to be interested in similar themes of overcoming specifically generational trauma – the kind of trauma you might experience if you were expected to die submissively at fourteen – and of working through the realisation that the conditions you were raised in were abusive and dysfunctional.

It’s relevant here that The Unspoken Name is an unapologetically queer book: Csorwe is a lesbian, and most of the characters fall somewhere under the LGBTQIA+ umbrella. Although this queerness is in Larkwood’s world unremarkable (this is no tale of queer tragedy), I’d say it absolutely adds a new dimension to Csorwe’s journey. Many, many queer people must as they grow up come to terms with unsupportive or downright abusive families of origin, and have to discover who they are on their own, building new found families that better reflect who they want to be and how they want to relate to the world. The Unspoken Name is not about queerness, but it reflects queer concerns in a relatable way that ties into the book’s larger themes of self-discovery and self-invention.

So: is The Unspoken Name YA, then? Lots of novels do examine the process of growing up and coming into oneself without necessarily being “for” the young people going through that process – James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is the classic example, but Guy Gavriel Kay’s Children of Earth and Sky, which I reviewed here last week, also works. These are texts that look at their protagonists’ coming-of-age from a perspective that is not strongly rooted in the teenage experience. Kay’s novel, for instance, has an omniscient narrator who frequently looks into his characters’ future, giving glimpses of how their present choices shape their lives in a way that’s at odds with YA’s emphasis on self-determination. By comparison, the voice of Larkwood’s novel is much closer to Csorwe’s own voice, so we experience her journey of self-discovery along with her. By the same token, though, The Unspoken Name doesn’t offer the kind of hyper-focus on a teenage protagonist that we tend to get in YA. As the Bandersnatch helpfully pointed out, speculative YA novels tend to have broad-brush, recognisable settings without too much sociopolitical complexity – think of the generic medieval fantasy setting of Cashore’s books, of Suzanne Collins’ high-concept, authoritarian Panem, of the high school analogue in PC and Kristin Cast’s Marked. That’s not automatically a bad thing: this broad-brush worldbuilding allows the author really to focus on their protagonist’s struggles without needing to explain what’s going on in the background. Whereas the setting of Larkwood’s novel is one of the things that’s slightly (deliberately) wrong-footing about it: its combination of inter-dimensional travel technology and D&D paladin-style magic insouciantly blends science fiction and fantasy, offering a little resistance to the reader expecting a straightforward romp through a recognisable world. That resistance takes the focus slightly off Csorwe, making us aware of her wider context in a way that YA isn’t always interested in.

It’s possible that this slight resistance is a factor in why The Unspoken Name isn’t being read as YA, despite its distinctively young adult features. Marketing, too, will be playing a huge part in how the novel’s being received: that cover, for instance, says “edgy grimdark fantasy”, not “affirming queer coming of age”. (Of course, if we wanted to be really facetious, we could point out that, since YA is primarily a marketing category, anything that’s not marketed as YA is de facto not YA. But that doesn’t get us very far, so.) On the whole I think this is a shame: I can imagine a young queer teen really enjoying The Unspoken Name, and getting a lot out of it, and a book missing a portion of its audience because of a commercial decision is never ideal. If The Unspoken Name isn’t technically YA, it’s certainly at least YA-adjacent, and a number of the flaws that reviewers have pointed out make a lot more sense in that context. Wherever we choose to place it generically, it’s a promising first novel that’s attempting some interesting things and largely succeeding; it’ll be good to see what Larkwood does next.

Review: The Deep

Rivers Solomon’s Hugo-nominated novella The Deep (their second book, following the publication of The Unkindness of Ghosts in 2017) has a strong interest in, and links with, oral modes of storytelling and history-making. Its most direct influence is a hip-hop song, “The Deep”, by experimental band clipping. (whose members are listed as co-authors of the novella), which was itself inspired by the work of electronic music band Drexciya. Its dreamy, slightly unfocused narration calls to mind the rhythms of oral storytelling, embarking as it often does on digressions that tell parts of a story, snippets of background information that weave together into a rich and impressionistic tapestry. The society the novella depicts has no writing, no way of recording information – it relies on a single Historian to hold its collective memory, sharing it once a year in a process at once traumatic and necessary.

For the history that the wajinru, the merpeople that The Deep centres on, remember is one of slavery: they’re descended from the children of pregnant women flung overboard by slaveship crews sailing the Middle Passage. The novella follows their Historian, Yetu, as she struggles to bear the weight of this history alone, seeking to chart a path between her responsibility to the wajinru, which threatens to overwhelm her, and her need for self-actualisation, which threatens the continued survival of the wajinru’s culture and traditions.

So the novella’s interest in oral storytelling is plainly linked to African-American storytelling traditions – the spoken (or sung) word often being the only method Black slaves had of passing down their history and culture. It’s through this lens that Solomon looks at questions about memorialising generational trauma. The wajinru choose to lay the burden of memory upon one Historian because they feel it’s too traumatic for them to bear as a culture. Through Yetu’s abandonment of the wajinru in the midst of their yearly ceremony of remembrance, when collective grief has them at their most vulnerable, the novella explores the ramifications and ethics of such a decision. When your cultural identity is partly shaped by trauma, how do you balance the need to remember the past, to pass on your history, with the need to move on, to live in the present and not be consumed by grief?

The Deep is also very good on LGBT+ representation: all the wajinru are intersex and choose their genders, and queer relationships are basically non-remarkable. (Solomon themself is non-binary.) In many ways, wajinru society is idyllic – if you don’t happen to be the Historian, that is – in a way that only emphasises the disproportionality of the burden that’s put on Yetu, the dysfunction of the way their culture deals with memory.

Solomon doesn’t present conclusive solutions to that dysfunction, but Yetu’s romance with human woman Oori, as well as the novella’s continuation of a shared universe begun by other artists, suggests that the way forward must be collective, must involve a sharing of responsibility. It’ll be interesting to see what – if anything – happens next in this shared universe; what future artists will choose to build on the foundations Solomon’s erected.

Review: The Ten Thousand Doors of January

This review contains spoilers.

A 2020 nominee for the Hugo Award for Best Novel, Alix E. Harrow’s debut The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a work that’s distinctively of the moment, part of a wider movement in SFF to reckon with the forces of colonialism and structural racism that are at work in the genre and in the world at large. Set in the early years of the twentieth century, when “the world was tasting the word modern on its tongue”, its protagonist is the titular January, a young brown woman living in the care of a wealthy white man, Mr Locke. Mr Locke employs January’s father to travel the world collecting rare artefacts for the New England Archaeological Society. When, early in the novel, January learns that her father is missing, presumed dead, she escapes from her grief into a book called The Ten Thousand Doors – a book that posits the existence of Doors between worlds and reveals that her own parents met on the other side of one of these Doors. Managing eventually to escape Mr Locke’s control, she goes off in search of of her father – but, unbeknownst to her, the New England Archaeological Society is closing all the doors it can find, potentially cutting her off forever from a family she’s only just learned about.

The link between books and doors that lead to other worlds, and the idea that books themselves act as doorways through which we can escape, is not a new one in fantasy literature: indeed, Erin Morgenstern deals with strikingly similar themes in a novel published the very same year as this one, The Starless Sea. It’s Harrow’s attention to racial power dynamics that marks The Ten Thousand Doors of January out, bringing a freshness and a modernity to the trope that differentiates it from Morgenstern’s effort. Throughout the novel, we’re told that the Doors bring change to the worlds they open onto, as ideas and objects pass through them. Mr Locke and his racist white friends are closing the Doors because they want to hang onto the status quo that gives them and their ilk uncontested power over the rest of the world. It’s a metaphor that’s perhaps more informed by the political situation of today, when increasing civil rights for minorities are being contested by those who fear the erosion of their own cultural dominance, than by the mood of the period Harrow’s writing in, which is as Harrow herself observes throughout the narrative characterised by ideas of progress, of marching forward into modernity. It would be valid, I think, to ask just what that progress means; but Harrow rather sidesteps the question by having Mr Locke act in bad faith. That is, we know by the end of the novel that Mr Locke’s is avowedly against progress; his talk of the march of modernity is essentially a smokescreen concealing his true nature. (As other reviewers, as well as the Bandersnatch, have observed, the reveal of Mr Locke’s true identity as a malevolent and otherworldly being is also disappointing because it undermines what’s been presented up until then as a highly conflicted but possibly still loving relationship with January.) And yet Harrow’s portrayal of Black and brown folks (January is aided in her search for her father by an older Black woman named Jane) triumphing against the forces of oppression by dint of their love for each other is so powerfully hopeful that it’s hard to begrudge her these imperfections.

This optimism is important in a genre that’s historically failed to imagine kind futures for Black and brown people. Like Marie Brennan in her Memoirs of Lady Trent, or Naomi Novik in her Temeraire series, what Harrow is doing here is reinscribing Black and brown folks into a whitewashed historical imagination (how many turn-of-the-century historical adventures do you know of that feature protagonists who aren’t white?), replicating the racist power structures her characters are embedded in without robbing them of agency or hope. Locating January’s ancestry in a literal other world which lacks those power structures is key to that: it identifies turn-of-the-century racism (and, by extension, modern racism) as historically contingent and thus eminently escapable.

I ranked The Ten Thousand Doors of January fifth on my Hugo ballot last year, just above the truly baffling City in the Middle of the Night, simply because the publishers made the decision to include only the first hundred pages of the novel in the voters’ packet. I’m sure that if I’d had the opportunity read the whole thing I’d have ranked it much higher, and I wonder how many other voters could say the same. I’m still not sure it would have beaten out 2020’s winner, Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire; but it’s certainly doing some similarly heavy lifting to Martine’s novel when it comes to critically examining colonialism and globalisation, and is a beautifully heartwarming tale to boot.

Review: Voyage of the Basilisk

It strikes me that Marie Brennan’s Memoirs of Lady Trent is doing something very similar to Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series. Both series, of course, centre on dragons; but that’s almost an incidental similarity, as the dragons in Brennan’s work function quite differently to those in Novik’s novels. What’s more important is that both Brennan and Novik are reworking pulpy narratives that generally centre on empire (the Victorian explorer’s memoir, the Napoleonic military fantasy) to include the perspectives of those who are traditionally left out of or marginalised by such narratives – the occupants of colonised countries or countries threatened by colonisation, women and gender non-conforming people, queer folk – and thereby construct a critique of empire.

Brennan’s novels are not I think as incisive on this as Novik’s: her fantasy world, unlike Novik’s, remains relatively unshaken by her protagonist’s encounters with new social paradigms, partly because Isabella Trent’s motives for getting along with the people she meets are basically self-interested: she conforms with unfamiliar customs in order to get access to dragons. She is simply more self-absorbed than Novik’s Captain Laurence, which means that the novels she appears in are less good at stepping outside the norms of empire.

Nevertheless, there is some interesting work going on in the series, and Voyage of the Basilisk is no exception. In this instalment, set like its predecessors in the alt-Victorian country of Scirling, Isabella and her young son Jacob embark on a two-year research trip aboard the titular vessel, looking as always for rare and fabled dragon species (dragons here being mundane if rather spectacular predators). Things of course do not go quite to plan, and the expedition’s members stumble into all sorts of exciting political trouble which inevitably turns out to be intimately bound up with Scirling interests in the island region they find themselves in.

Voyage of the Basilisk builds on the series’ interest in gender in particular. Scirling society is a little different to that of Victorian England, but its patriarchal norms remain the same, and Isabella is constantly butting up against the limits of what she can do and how she is perceived as a single woman attempting to make a name as a scientist. A hastily-published research paper that turns out to be based on erroneous assumptions is damaging to her reputation in a way that it wouldn’t be for a man; her close friendship with Suhail, a fellow researcher who happens to be male, is scandalous because she’s an unmarried woman. She’s constrained at every turn by the rigid gender norms her culture enforces.

This fact is thrown into sharp focus when the Basilisk runs aground on the island of Keonga. Forced to stay on the island while the ship is repaired, Isabella is directed by the islanders to a woman named Heali’i, a seeming outcast from village life who nevertheless attracts some measure of respect. It turns out that Heali’i is something close to transgender, although the Western concept doesn’t quite map: non-binary is perhaps more accurate, as she’s seen as being in-between genders, although her presentation is emphatically feminine. She is known as “dragon-spirited”, and seen as not quite human. In the Keongan worldview, Isabella, with her refusal to conform to standard gender norms, sits similarly in between the genders, and is similarly dragon-spirited; to tie her into human society, to neutralise the instability she represents, the villagers demand that she marry a Keongan woman for the duration of her time on the island. (The woman in question, Liluakame, is set to benefit from this arrangement: it’ll allow her to marry her true sweetheart, Kapo’ono, who’s off on a trading expedition, without being betrothed to someone else in the meantime.)

When Suhail asks Isabella if she herself believes that she is neither male or female, she gives quite an interesting answer:

So long as my society refuses to admit of a concept of femininity that allows for such things [i.e., a serious interest in dragons] …then one could indeed say that I stand between.

It’s interesting because I don’t think I’ve ever seen a straight cisgender protagonist of this sort of historical fantasy start to think about the restrictiveness of gender norms in this way, to view them as forces that affect everyone, cis or trans, straight or queer. It may not quite match up to Captain Laurence’s quest to overhaul England’s treatment of dragons, but I’m interested to see what Brennan does with it in future novels.

Review: The Folded World

Seven months on from finishing The Folded World, the second novel in Catherynne M. Valente’s as-yet-unfinished Dirge for Prester John, I’m struggling to find anything to say about it that I haven’t already said in my review of the first novel, The Habitation of the Blessed.

It is some years after Valente’s version of the mythical Christian king Prester John seized control of the deathless land of Pentexore by rigging the Abir, the lottery which grants to each Pentexoran a new role in society every three hundred years to stave off the boredom of immortality. A daughter he did not know he had comes to him, bearing a letter from Constantinople asking for help in the Crusades. John’s wife Hagia narrates how he leads the Pentexorans, for whom war is a grand game with no casualties and death is simply the beginning of a new phase of life, into a bloody and treacherous conflict from which many of them will not return. Behind them John and Hagia leave their daughter Sefalet, who has a mouth on each hand – one that speaks with the sweet voice of a child, and another whose voice is cynical, bitter and adult; her tale is narrated by her guardian Vyala. Finally, another human, John Mandeville, stumbles into the land behind the diamond wall that supposedly contains the dread giants Gog and Magog, and records the adventures that happen to him there.

The novel’s structure, then, with its three braided voices framed by the tale of the monk who’s recording them centuries later, is pretty much identical to its predecessor’s. Thematically, too, it covers much of the same ground: Christianity as colonisation; the loss of innocence; the senselessness of religious conflict. And despite the fact that The Folded World features two new narrators, the voice is the same too, lush and rich with complex imagery and allusion.

None of which is to say that The Folded World is a bad novel: on the contrary, it’s a genuinely unusual take on medieval history and intellectual attitudes, deeply informed by Old Testament imagery and yet not explicitly Christian. It’s certainly light-years ahead of the vast majority of medieval fantasy; simply utterly different in its approach to the world and to this period in history. And perhaps it’s churlish to complain that it’s too similar to its predecessor when that predecessor is so original. And yet, there it is. I wish I had got more out of it.

Review: Circe

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

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

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

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