Review: Winterkeep

WinterkeepPublished in January this year, Kristin Cashore’s Winterkeep marks her return to the acclaimed Graceling Realms series, a run of high fantasy YA novels dealing with themes of parental abuse, coercive control and personal agency. This latest outing is a departure in terms of tone, setting and structure, and although on the whole I enjoyed it, that enjoyment was despite its many quirks rather than because of them.

The people of the Graceling Realms have recently discovered a new continent, the land of Torla, and have opened up trade with the nearest nation on that continent, Winterkeep. When a delegation from the Monsean Queen Bitterblue (who we saw struggling with the legacy of her monstrous father Leck in Bitterblue, the previous novel in the series) goes missing, Bitterblue and her retinue go themselves to Winterkeep to find out what’s going on. Their story is interwoven with that of the young woman Lovisa, daughter of two powerful Winterkeep politicians, who is slowly waking up to the emotional harm her parents have done to her and her younger brothers.

It’s hard to summarise beyond that simply because there’s so much going on here. This is the first Graceling Realms novel to feature multiple points of view: whereas previous outings in the series focused narrowly on the emotional journey of a single character, allowing Cashore to explore their coming-of-ages in great depth, Winterkeep takes a broader approach, attempting to draw its conclusions from multiple examples. It also, somewhat jarringly, introduces environmental concerns: Torla, in stark contrast to the other Graceling Realms, is in the middle of an industrial revolution, and the fuel that powers their economy is toxic and dangerous to use and to produce. There are discussions of two-party politics, arms manufacturing, capitalism; there’s boarding school drama, murder, arson, imprisonment, court politicking and romantic intrigue; there are telepathic blue foxes, sentient sea-creatures and a massive gentle tentacled being with POV chapters.

This kitchen-sink approach is a poor fit with Cashore’s strengths as a writer. Generally, what’s enjoyable and valuable about the first three novels is the way they use tropes such as mind control and absolute monarchy to literalise the concerns about agency, privacy and consent that many modern teens face as they grow up, focusing those concerns through a single viewpoint character. In Winterkeep, that close focus is diffused: agency, privacy and consent all remain key themes, but they’re not literalised in the same way (there is telepathy in Winterkeep, but it’s somewhat sidelined in favour of more mundane forms of emotional abuse), and the introduction of a more political dimension to the text detracts from the clarity and depth with which Cashore’s other novels discuss them. And Cashore is not good on the politics. Her takes on two-party systems of government, environmental degradation and capitalism are basic, shallow, uninteresting; and she is unable in this volume to resolve the series’ increasingly inconsistent position on democracy. One of Bitterblue’s contingency plans for Monsea, should she die in Winterkeep, is for the country to transition into a republic; by this we are to understand that she is a just and progressive ruler. And yet by the end of Winterkeep she is discussing future children with her love interest, talking of teaching them to rule justly (instead of, for instance, abdicating her throne in favour of the republic she has already planned for). By this we are to understand that she has achieved a desirable romantic dream. Herein lies the problem: Cashore is fundamentally most interested in her characters’ personal lives, and so introducing an ill-thought-through political dimension creates tensions and fractures that the text is not set up to address.

The pleasures of the earlier novels are, however, not entirely absent from Winterkeep. Their fundamental good-heartedness about what their characters deserve from life remains: Bitterblue and Lovisa come through different kinds of abuse to find understanding, support and love. We care about them. We care about their ability to process and make it past what has happened to them. Ultimately it’s this that kept me reading despite the novel’s messiness, despite my initial scepticism about the telepathic foxes and the move from cod-medieval fantasy into quasi-steampunk: despite everything, Cashore’s love and concern for her characters is what shines through.

Review: Ashes of Honor

Ashes of HonorThe sixth instalment in Seanan McGuire’s Toby Daye fae detective series, Ashes of Honor continues to build upon the novels’ interest in family and heredity. It’s at least the third book in the series to deal with disappeared children: this time, a heretofore unknown teenage changeling named Chelsea, the daughter of a knight of Toby’s liege lord Duke Sylvester and a human folklore professor at UC Berkeley, is teleporting uncontrollably, ripping open portals into the deep lands of Faerie and jeopardising the stability of the fae’s homes in the Summerlands. Toby, a changeling herself, is engaged by Chelsea’s father Etienne to find her and bring her home before others try to, more violently.

Something that I feel I’ve sort of been skirting around in my posts about the Toby Daye series is McGuire’s treatment of race and how it maps onto real-world civil rights issues. In one sense, the books are reasonably diverse, and become increasingly so as the series goes on: the fae don’t care about sexual orientation or skin colour, and in Ashes of Honor there’s at least one lesbian couple and two brown characters. (As a side note, though, I haven’t seen any real effort in this series to include global mythological traditions: Raj and Jazz remain embedded in a thoroughly Anglo-Celtic folkloric context, which has the probably unintended effect of subordinating non-Western traditions to the Western paradigm.) Skipping ahead a bit, the ninth book in the series, A Red-Rose Chain, features a transgender character who’s treated fairly well by the narrative.

It’s changelings who face the brunt of discrimination in Faerie: those unlucky enough to be born part-human, part-fae. At a certain age changeling children are offered a choice between their fae and human heritage: those who choose the fae world are taken forever from their human parent to face a lifetime of second-class citizenship in Faerie; those who choose humanity are discreetly murdered in order to preserve Faerie’s secrecy. It’s a rough deal, one that the series explicitly frames as a civil rights issue, talking about changeling rights and equality. And it’s not a huge leap from that to reading McGuire’s changelings as analogues for real-world mixed-race people.

Seen in this light, the solution that Ashes of Honor presents to changeling discrimination is rather unsatisfactory. Just as she did for her daughter Gillian at the end of One Salt Sea, Toby draws on her newfound powers to shift the balance of Chelsea’s blood, making her entirely fae to enable her to control her magic. This gives Chelsea a happy ending, allowing her to evade the oppobrium of changeling-hood while also staying with both her parents (since Sylvester allows Etienne to invite his human wife to live with him in Faerie, something that hasn’t been done for hundreds of years). Later novels in the series indicate that Toby sees this as a permanent structural solution to the loss and ill-treatment that changelings suffer. To me, though, it looks like erasure: instead of actually accepting changelings and treating them as equals, let’s just…make them not changelings any more? I’m reminded of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, which touts the internet as the solution to racism and sexism because everyone can just pretend to be white men. These are “solutions” that put the burden on the oppressed, not the oppressor, which is exactly backwards.

I’m not trying to suggest here that the Toby Daye books are particularly objectionable or deliberately racist: they’re no worse than a lot of Western mainstream fiction, and it’s also clear that McGuire is intentionally working to improve representation in a series whose first instalment was written 12 years ago. I do think the series is a good example of a text in which generic conventions – in this case the detective novel’s focus on individual trauma and the need to restore the status quo – are pulling against its overt concerns and themes: here, the attempt to work towards a structural solution to institutional discrimination. Sometimes that tension can be productive; for this series, though, it’s just limiting. Ashes of Honor is fun, but the novel, and the series as a whole, is not really equipped to deal satisfactorily with the anxieties it’s evoking.

Review: Utopia Avenue

Utopia AvenueDavid Mitchell has built a career on writing virtuosic yet accessible novels characterised by strong storytelling, structural fireworks and light speculative elements that just about toe the line of acceptability to the literary establishment. His most famous novel, Cloud Atlas, features six nesting stories arranged in a Russian doll structure, ranging from the diary of a mid-nineteenth century American lawyer witnessing colonial atrocities in the Pacific to an orally narrated tale of the fall of civilisation in the far future; 2014’s The Bone Clocks similarly presents us with six linked stories covering a span of time from the 1980s to the apocalyptic 2040s, this time centring on a single human character with a connection to a fantastical society of immortals.

His latest novel, then, looks to be a bit of a departure. Utopia Avenue is a mostly realist account of the rise and fall of a fictional 1960s folk-rock band of the same name: it’s character- rather than plot-driven, and so how much you enjoy it will depend very much on how much you relish hanging out with Utopia Avenue’s members – gifted guitarist Jasper de Zoet, a public-school boy disowned by his wealthy family on account of his schizophrenia and autism; Dean Moss, a working-class vocalist from Gravesend with an alcoholic father; Elf Holloway, a folk singer struggling with her lesbianism and the way that the music industry treats women; Griff Griffin, the drummer, the glue that holds the band together; and manager Levon Frankland, a gay man in a profoundly homophobic time.

Elf, Dean and Jasper are all songwriters as well as musicians, and each of the novel’s chapters is named after one of Utopia Avenue’s songs, and narrated by the character who wrote that song. As a structural choice that might feel gimmicky, but in fact it ties into Mitchell’s recurring interest in how we use art to process life’s hardships and to withstand them. We see Utopia Avenue using music to deal with bereavement, mental illness and parenthood, transmuting their particular, personal struggles into art that resonates more generally – and in doing so giving other people the tools to deal with the difficulties they face in their own lives. Mitchell renders this particular power that art has – the power to make us feel that we are not alone – effectively and affectingly, with real heart and charm.

One of the reasons this works so well is that Mitchell’s characters are not just dealing with personal turmoil, but with social upheaval too. His choice to set the novel in 1967, at the tail end of the Summer of Love, places the work of Utopia Avenue against a backdrop of growing protest against the Vietnam War, as well as the burgeoning LGBT civil rights movement. There’s a general sense that the carefree early years of the 60s are over, to be replaced by something more complex and more troubled; more cynical, perhaps. There are here echoes of our own embattled present: decades of apparent democratic and liberal progress are becoming undone by increasingly authoritarian governments; environmental apocalypse looms large in our public consciousness just as nuclear apocalypse loomed in the 60s. Mitchell’s portrayal of popular art as a powerful fosterer of togetherness and solidarity thus takes on deeper resonance and weight: we, like Utopia Avenue’s fictional fans, feel ourselves that we are not alone in our unease and unrest; others, too, have lived through tumultuous times in history. It’s a deeply consolatory feeling; but not, I think, a conservative one. These characters go through tragedy, after all, and their road is not entirely smooth. But there is comradeship and joy along the way.

Utopia Avenue is mostly realist, I said above. But, however traditional it looks, it is still a David Mitchell novel. Remember the immortals I mentioned in my description of The Bone Clocks? Turns out that Jasper’s schizophrenia is actually caused by a malign immortal consciousness known only as “the Mongolian” trapped in his brain for complicated reasons linked to the events of Mitchell’s fifth novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. He is helped by another immortal, Marinus, who similarly crops up in many of Mitchell’s other novels, but the drugs Marinus uses to suppress the Mongolian are extremely injurious to Jasper’s health.

If this speculative storyline seems jarring alongside the more literary concerns I’ve been discussing, that’s because, frankly, it is. As fantasy goes it’s pretty schlocky stuff, and it’s very much less than clear what Mitchell’s trying to achieve with it beyond tying Utopia Avenue into his wider mythos – his so-called “ubernovel”. I suppose as an explanation for Jasper’s schizophrenia it could be working as a metaphor for the lack of understanding extended to mental health conditions in the 60s – Jasper might as well have someone else’s mind in his head for all that doctors know about his illness – but if that’s the case it’s very poorly handled: much of Mitchell’s speculative worldbuilding is conveyed baldly, by infodump, leaving little room for metaphoric resonance or ambiguity. The inevitable conclusion to Jasper’s story also has problematic implications for the value Mitchell places on those who are mentally ill: Marinus and his colleagues succeed in banishing the Mongolian, essentially curing Jasper of his disability. (It’s worth mentioning, though, that Jasper’s autism, which is figured throughout the novel as foundational to his musical genius and the psychedelic brilliance of his lyrics, remains uncured.)

Schlocky fantasy aside, though, I have to admit that I fell completely in love with Utopia Avenue. Dean, Elf, Jasper, Griff and Levon felt like family as I read, and their music that I have never heard came alive on the page. I loved their camaraderie in the face of tragedy, the ordinariness of their troubles in contrast with their increasingly stratospheric fame. I loved how the novel reshaped itself in my head once I had finished it. I loved how much I related to Jasper’s “emotional dyslexia” and Elf’s journey to self-acceptance. Utopia Avenue is deeply emotionally satisfying, a complete aesthetic experience; it makes art, purposeful and meaningful, out of the mundane tragedies and joys of the everyday. It’s my favourite novel for a very long time.

Review: One Salt Sea

This review contains spoilers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Late Eclipses

This review contains spoilers.

Late EclipsesIn this, the fourth novel in Seanan McGuire’s urban fantasy series following the exploits of fae PI October Daye, McGuire expands on a theme that began to take shape in its predecessor, An Artificial Night, and which will become increasingly important as the series goes on: the nature and desirability of heroism. In An Artificial Night, you’ll remember, Toby’s heroism was tantamount to a death wish, as she returned again and again into danger (in a fashion that ultimately became quite annoying) in order to slay the immensely powerful Blind Michael. Late Eclipses sees the consequences of that deed catching up with her, as the mercurial Queen of the Mists puts Toby on trial for the murder of a Firstborn, a crime that carries a death sentence. At the same time, her friends and allies, powerful members of the fae, are being poisoned by a villain with the ability to shape Toby’s thoughts, once again raising the spectre of the madness to which changelings and others with mixed fae heritage are supposedly subject. Can a Toby no longer in control of her own mind be trusted? And can she escape the Queen of the Mist’s persecution?

Interestingly, I think both of these questions are in their different ways approaching an issue that’s more often explored in modern superhero narratives: to what extent should heroic behaviour be subject to external scrutiny? The text takes it for granted, for instance, that Toby should be let off killing Blind Michael because he was a sadistic monster who refused to stop kidnapping and effectively mutilating children. And while it’s possible – in fact I think quite uncontroversial – that Toby’s act was justified, and it’s flagrantly obvious that the Queen’s motivations for trying Toby are political rather than born out of a desire to serve justice, it’s interesting that McGuire’s focus remains on the Queen’s unfairness in bringing the trial at all rather than the fact that the trial is a sham. Toby is eventually exonerated through something of a legal technicality, but there’s still the suggestion that as a heroic figure she’s granted the latitude to operate outside the normal rules of Faerie – in the same way that her changeling status makes her an outsider to fae high society.

The question of whether Toby’s mind is her own, and the ever-present threat of madness that lies behind her actions, is I think the flipside to this privileged outsider status, madness and mental illness having been used throughout literature and history conceptually to neutralise those who would not or could not conform to social norms. So McGuire is using the threat of madness to index the potential vulnerability of fae society to someone who is allowed to operate outside fae laws as Toby is: she has the power to wreak great destruction on that society as well as to save it. Or, to put it more simply, her heroism is a danger as well as a help.

As I’ve said, these are all concepts that have been explored before in the context of the superhero genre, and while it’s interesting to see them used in an urban fantasy text I’m not sure that McGuire is doing anything new with them. Late Eclipses is also, for my money, the least interesting and distinctive novel of the series so far, replacing the folkloric resonance that differentiates the first three novels from the vast majority of urban fantasy with what are ultimately some rather mundane political manoeuvrings. It remains, nevertheless, a pleasant enough filler read, and I’m looking forward to thinking about how McGuire’s depiction of heroism evolves as the series continues.

Review: Fragile Things

Fragile ThingsNeil Gaiman needs little introduction: easily one of the bestselling and best-known SFF authors out there, he’s responsible for lucrative media properties including comic book series The Sandman, the novels Good Omens (with Terry Pratchett) and American Gods, the TV adaptations of which have strong fan followings, as well as Stardust and Coraline, which have been turned into beloved feature films. He is, in short, a major voice in the field, commercially if not aesthetically; as an author who’s won numerous genre awards, he’s a good indicator of what kind of work the core genre community consistently rewards.

His 2006 collection of “Short Fictions and Wonders” Fragile Things contains 28 short stories and poems written between 1997 and 2006, four of which are Locus and Hugo award-winners; the collection as a whole won a British Fantasy Award and a Locus award in 2007. I emphasise this because, appropriately given the book’s title (although not in the way I suspect Gaiman intended it), almost every piece in Fragile Things feels slight, insubstantial, unmemorable; nothing here, to me, is remotely award-worthy.

Take those four winning stories. First up, “A Study in Emerald”, voted Locus Best Novelette in 2004, a Lovecraft/Sherlock Holmes mashup in which the monarchs of Europe are Great Old Ones. It’s one of the better stories of the collection, I’d say, but one that never rises beyond pastiche: certainly it never approaches the atmosphere of gibbering horror that lies just beneath the surface of Lovecraft’s excessive purple prose.

The same is true of “Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Nameless House of the Night of Dread Desire”, a Locus Best Short Story winner whose premise is so utterly facile that I am actively annoyed by it. The story’s protagonist lives in a Gothic mansion where melodramatic happenings such as shrieking ghosts, swordfights with estranged family members and ravens cawing “Nevermore!” are all commonplace occurrences; he finds escapism in writing what we would consider literary realism, which to him is fluffy fantasy. That’s it. That’s the story. It’s what I think of as a “punchline story”: a piece that’s structurally identical to a joke, in that it’s constructed solely around a piece of wordplay or an unexpected inversion or a literalised metaphor, without having anything to say beyond “look how clever I am”.

“How to Talk to Girls at Parties”, another Locus Best Short Story winner, falls neatly into this category too. The teenage protagonist attends a house party where he meets two girls who are actually aliens – except, because he’s already expecting teenage girls in general to be unapproachable, sophisticated and generally Other, he doesn’t actually notice. There is, as several commentators have noted, some truth in the notion that when you are fourteen it can feel as though people of other genders might as well be from another planet: teenage me certainly felt that way about boys. The problem here is that, as with many “punchline stories”, it’s painfully obvious from very early on just how the piece will turn out; as soon as the narrator’s friend Vic says the fateful words “They’re just girls…They don’t come from another planet” there’s no need to read any further. The boys meet the aliens; then they leave, and forget about them. Again, that’s it; there’s nothing else going on here.

“Sunbird”, the final award-winning story in the collection (another Locus Best Short Story), is, like “A Study in Emerald”, a reasonably competent piece that nevertheless makes little impact. An Epicurean Club whose members have spent their lives in pursuit of ever rarer delicacies take the opportunity to sample a phoenix, but things don’t go entirely their way. There’s a nicely folkloric slant to the tale, a resonant bit of poetic irony, but the piece lacks the sharp edge of menace it needs to make it truly effective.

In fact true menace, or at the very least a sense of Gothic atmosphere, is what’s missing from most of the stories in this collection – a problem that renders horror stories like “The Flints of Memory Lane”, “Closing Time” and “Feeders and Eaters” little more than shaggy dog stories. Ephemera like “Strange Little Girls”, “My Life” and “Diseasemaker’s Croup”, written to accompany, respectively, a CD, a photograph and a book of fictional illnesses, do little to add to the weightiness of the collection; the same is true of Gaiman’s poetry, which is overly literal and none too euphonious.

The one piece that I think really properly works here is also the only one I’d read before: the novella The Monarch of the Glen, which takes place in the American Gods universe. That novel’s protagonist, Shadow, is hired to provide security to what is apparently a highly exclusive weekend of revelry in a remote manor house in Scotland – only to discover that the weekend is a cover for a sinister and ancient ritual. This story possesses the atmosphere of menace, the folkloric resonance, that the rest of the collection is missing; there’s a sense of dark forces lurking beneath the apparently mundane everyday, and Gaiman does a good job of mapping his modern protagonists onto the myths he’s working from. There’s also a layer of social commentary here, the revellers’ privilege and entitlement contrasted with the itinerant lifestyle Shadow (a Black man who has been in prison) leads.

Overall, though, this is not an impressive collection. It’s not so much that these stories are bad: they’re decently constructed and clearly expressed; the dialogue mostly feels natural and authentic; the prose is competent. They are, in short, professional efforts by an author who’s been in the game a long time. But that’s the very least one should be able to expect from someone who’s received so much praise and recognition from the community. The pieces collected in Fragile Things have no teeth, no substance; as texts that aim to unsettle, they pull their punches too often to stick in the memory. I’m sceptical, to say the least, that any of these stories were the best of their year.

Review: The City of Woven Streets

The City of Woven StreetsI haven’t read Emmi Itäranta’s debut novel Memory of Water, the English-language version of which was shortlisted for a slew of speculative fiction awards when it came out in 2014, but what I have heard of it seems to indicate that she’s dealing with similar themes in her sophomore effort, 2016’s The City of Woven Streets. Both novels are set in a dystopian society whose people are deprived of access to some basic human resource – water in the earlier novel, dreams in the later one – and both take a slightly allegorical approach to their subject matter. By the latter I mean that neither novel is strictly realistic in its worldbuilding, even taking into account the rules of their imagined settings; instead, they rely on metaphorical and emotional resonance to create meaning.

The City of Woven Streets, then, is the story of Eliana, a young woman who lives and works in the House of Weavers, on a remote and storm-washed island ruled over by the autocratic Council. Eliana has a dangerous secret: unlike her Weaver colleagues, she dreams. Should her secret be discovered, she’ll be whisked off to the House of the Tainted, never to be seen again. Her precarious position is complicated further when a woman named Valeria washes up in a storm, tongue cut out and with Eliana’s name written upon her hand. Eliana’s attempts to decipher her connection to Valeria, as she gradually falls in love with her, lead her to momentous truths about the island, the Council, and why nobody dreams.

The society in which Eliana lives is as much fantasy-medieval as it is anything else, albeit with a touch of steampunk: literacy rates are low, there’s little in the way of machinery or automation (save for the air gondolas that shuttle between the island’s various key buildings on cables), and women’s rights in particular are limited. Yet there’s a lot here that speaks to thoroughly contemporary concerns about environmental degradation and exploitation, in a way that directly connects these issues to the exploitation and oppression of indigenous peoples and the working classes. For instance, fairly early on in the novel, Eliana hears reports of masses of dead medusae – the jellyfish the people of the island use for pain relief – washing up on the shores; eventually, she discovers that the die-off was caused by a chemical that the Council uses to suppress dreaming in the island’s citizens. Later, Eliana is sent to the House of the Tainted herself, and finds out that the people imprisoned there are being used as forced labour to carry out the difficult and dangerous work of harvesting the red coral that is the island’s main export – and that the task is made more difficult and dangerous by the fact that the coral is becoming rarer and harder to reach as a direct result of this overexploitation of the sea’s resources. Finally, at the novel’s denouement, Eliana meets a sentient being below the House of the Weavers whose people were driven from the island by the Council and forgotten, and who possesses important knowledge about an impending cataclysm that’s about to strike the island – something that neither the Council nor the island’s human inhabitants know anything about.

It’s a novel, in short, that’s partly about the costs – environmental, social and economic – of treating both people and the environment as resources to be exploited for the benefit of a powerful elite. Itäranta’s transplantation of these concerns into a low-tech fantasy setting helps to bring them into sharp emotional contrast; shorn of the complexities of modern globalism, they can be seen more clearly, and confronted more directly. Her dreamy, flowing prose, verging on stream of consciousness in some places, contributes to this effect: it brings the tale into sharp emotional resonance, a resonance that more obviously “realistic” climate fiction (I’m thinking here of works like Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora) struggles to achieve.

This is something that surprisingly few speculative fiction novels are trying to do, actually – I can’t, offhand, think of any fantasy-inflected novels that are interested in environmental exploitation in a way that relates so closely to the real world (I suppose Kristin Cashore’s new novel Winterkeep does have environmental themes, but they feel secondary to the personal drama her characters are dealing with), and certainly none that take this fabulist, metaphorical approach to it. It’s quite an effective one here, the deceptively simple surface of the text concealing some sophisticated thinking about structural oppression, and it’s something I’d like to see more of.

Review: Bitterblue

BitterblueThe third novel in Kristin Cashore’s young adult Graceling series, Bitterblue is very like its predecessors in that it deals centrally with issues of abuse and coercive control. The eponymous Bitterblue is the daughter of the late King Leck of Monsea, a man who could control people’s minds and have them do his often megalomaniac bidding. As the new ruler of Monsea, and a victim of Leck’s cruelty in her own right, Bitterblue has to come to terms not only with what her father did to the country’s people, but also with her own power and privilege and the responsibilities they confer upon her. Her attempts to do so are complicated by her advisers, who all also suffered under Leck, and who are more interested in forgetting what he did to them, and made them do to others, than in confronting his crimes and providing restitution to Monsea’s people. Frustrated by their equivocation, Bitterblue decides to explore her capital city alone, dressed as a commoner, and meets a man called Sapphire with whom she strikes up a relationship of sorts. Saf tells her what life in the city is really like: the endemic illiteracy, the poor construction of many of its buildings, the people doing the work her government should be doing by illicitly returning the things Leck stole to their proper owners. How, given Leck’s past abuses, can Bitterblue do best by her people? And how can she repair the wrong she’s done to Saf by concealing her identity for so long?

It’s not necessarily a novel in which a whole lot happens, its concerns being mostly personal and psychological. Like a lot of YA fantasy, it focuses quite narrowly on its protagonist’s emotional state: the world and the characters around Bitterblue exist mainly to facilitate her self-actualisation. Her presentation is realistic in that she is as important in her narrative as we are important to ourselves: we only have access to her interiority in the novel in the same way that we only have access to our own interiority in real life. It’s therefore significant that Cashore manages to avoid the trap of suggesting that Bitterblue is the only important character in the novel: a key part of what Saf teaches her is about recognising the reality of other people, accepting that what is convenient for you may not be convenient for them, and handling power imbalances ethically and fairly.

Power has always been a key concern of the Graceling series, and here Cashore mixes the formula up a bit. Bitterblue is unlike the protagonists of the previous novels, Katsa and Fire, in that she has no magical power; her power comes from her social position. So whereas Katsa and Fire, broadly speaking, use their supernatural gifts to escape the coercive social power of others, Bitterblue has to learn to wield her social power responsibly, and to gain the goodwill and trust of those over who she has power. Both approaches are useful ones, I think, and it’s particularly notable that Katsa and Fire are specifically feminist protagonists whose stories act as correctives to traditional narratives about female characters in generic fantasy settings. But Bitterblue strikes me as the more nuanced and relevant text: Bitterblue’s experience is closer to what real teens experience as they become adults and start to learn that (at the risk of sounding flippant) other people are real too; and it approaches complex social questions that the earlier novels only really glance at. It is, for instance, the first novel in the series that’s interested in working-class concerns in a concrete way (as opposed to the general “think of the poor peasants” sentiment that pervades Graceling and Fire) – and as such I think challenges some of the class assumptions that we make when we’re reading this type of fantasy.

It is, in other words, a thoughtful, timely and interesting novel that addresses contemporary concerns about power, privilege and state reparations. It’s not perfect: in particular, I think its position on democracy as opposed to monarchy is incoherent, a problem that will become worse in the next book, Winterkeep; and the prose is distinctly workaday, lacking polish or charm. (I also found it difficult to reconcile Bitterblue’s fondness for modern-sounding sugary desserts with the sort-of-medieval setting: where are they getting all this chocolate from?) But, despite these flaws, I think it ultimately succeeds in what it’s trying to do, and asks some unusual questions about power structures in high fantasy along the way.

Review: Mister Monday

This review contains spoilers.

Mister MondayGarth Nix’s novel Mister Monday – the first in the Keys to the Kingdom series, which consists of seven books that are, yes, all named after days of the week – is one of those children’s books that, like Alice in Wonderland and much of Roald Dahl’s work, presents us with an exaggerated and apparently nonsensical view of the adult world in order to address concerns about growing up and becoming part of it. The novel’s prologue tells us about a sentient Will whose seven trustees, unwilling to execute it, have divided up into seven pieces which they have placed under constant guard; one of those pieces, however, has escaped, and is busy running around trying to be fulfilled. Back in our world, or a version of it, schoolboy Arthur Penhaligon collapses from a severe asthma attack and is handed a Key, a powerful magical artefact, by the titular Mister Monday, one of the Will’s trustees. Monday expects Arthur to die pretty much immediately, so he can then reclaim the Key while also having technically fulfilled the terms of the Will; but, thanks to the Will’s own intervention, Arthur survives, and enters the vast interdimensional House to which Monday and the other trustees belong in search of a cure for a plague that is threatening his hometown.

The House as we encounter it in Mister Monday (it takes different forms as the series goes on) is steampunk in aesthetic and bafflingly bureaucratic. There are thousands of ranks, with House denizens taking centuries to work their way up from some lowly position to a slightly higher one; there’s a decade-long queue to get an audience with Mister Monday; pretty much everyone is operating under arcane laws and restrictions that neither Arthur nor the reader have any hope of interpreting. In one scene we see a street full of people rushing about moving written documents for no reason that is ever explained (at least in this novel). It all strongly resembles a child’s idea of what an office looks like: a rigid Victorian hierarchy, uncomfortable and unfamiliar clothes, an impenetrable system of rules and regulations, an apparently arbitrary obsession with paperwork. In other words, the House appears to make little sense because office norms make little sense to children.

Which makes it significant that Nix’s child protagonist must eventually successfully navigate the House – both in order to stop the plague in our world and because Mister Monday’s actions have made him heir to the House and its environs. It’s notable that Arthur’s success in the House – which involves defeating and dethroning Mister Monday, and taking his place – directly enables his success in undoing the effects of the plague: having navigated the topsy-turvy adult world of the House, he’s able to take his first steps towards independent agency, and thus adulthood, in our world. In a particularly neat touch, both Arthur’s (deceased) birth parents and his adoptive mother Emily were instrumental in devising a cure for a flu epidemic a decade or so before the time in which the novel takes place; in effecting the cure for this new plague, Arthur is taking on his parents’ mantle, in another symbolic step towards adulthood.

So, in Mister Monday, Garth Nix is using portal fantasy to explore childhood anxieties about adulthood and agency, by having his young protagonist gain power over a distorted, fun-house version of an adult workplace – thus rendering the things that seem arbitrary about adult life more legible and therefore less sinister. Children’s literature is traditionally geared towards helping the implied child-reader become good members of the adult social order, and Mister Monday is no exception: Arthur may be a long way off true adulthood yet, but by the end of the novel he’s taken a significant step in its direction.

Review: A Guide to Folktales in Fragile Dialects

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

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

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

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