Review: The Water Dancer

This review contains spoilers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Windwitch

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

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

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

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

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

Review: A Red-Rose Chain

The ninth entry in Seanan McGuire’s Toby Daye series, A Rose-Red Chain introduces a welcome breath of fresh air into what was in danger of becoming a rather repetitive collection of plots, motifs and themes. Instead of charging off into mortal physical peril as she usually does, changeling PI Toby is in this instalment tasked with diplomatic negotiations: in this case, persuading the belligerent King Rhys of the Kingdom of Silences not to wage war against her monarch, Queen Arden in the Mists.

She is, naturally, monumentally bad at this.

Putting Toby on the political stage is an interesting choice: although previous instalments have shown her to be well-connected – she’s dating a King of Cats, her squire is the (disguised) Crown Prince of the Westlands, she’s on first-name terms with the Luidaeg, a Firstborn who terrifies pretty much all of Faerie – her adventures up to this point have tended to treat her as a powerful individual rather than someone moving through a web of influence and connections. They’ve been about her ability to investigate disappearances, to draw on contacts for information, to fight, to use her blood-working magic. We haven’t really seen her try to change Faerie in any kind of systematic way.

It’s quite fun, then, seeing her navigate the intricacies of a strange court, fending off the icy hostility of the pureblood fae who believe that she, being a changeling, is worse than nothing. The plot, as is usual for this series, rattles on at a good pace, bringing new revelations at every turn. Magical mutilation! Goblin fruit! Changeling cats! All good stuff. The climax does inevitably involve Toby suffering catastrophic injuries that would kill anyone else, but for the most part there is refreshingly little blood.

On the other hand, placing Toby in a diplomatic context does kind of reveal the paucity of the series’ political world – or, more specifically, Toby’s political imagination. Toby’s soapbox issue is changeling rights, and, given that the series hews very closely to her point of view, it’s also the primary political issue we encounter in Faerie. But Toby’s efforts to improve the lot of changelings, most of whom are very much less privileged than she, are for the most part reactive rather than proactive: she’ll help specific changelings, usually magically, when the plot gives her the opportunity to do so, but she rarely takes the initiative to alter changelings’ status in fae society in general. (It doesn’t really help that one of the main ways the series indicates which characters are sympathetic is whether they are nice to changelings or not: the action Toby habitually takes against corrupt fae rulers therefore does technically improve the lot of changelings, but that’s not usually her immediate motivation in deposing them.)

This is a problem because Toby’s trajectory throughout the series has been about her coming from a place of oppression – her changeling status has seen her abused by the pureblood community and, at the start of the first book, turned into a fish for 14 years, leaving her at the very edge of both fae and human society when she’s restored – to a place of privilege: she’s built a family of sorts around her, cementing her place in the fae social order. As readers we’ve been conditioned to care about changelings and to be outraged at their treatment, because we care about Toby and all that she has lost. In this context, the loss of the urgency with which the earlier books approached changeling rights, Toby’s failure to give the changelings behind her a hand up, feels jarring, at odds with our understanding of Toby as a champion of the oppressed and an all-round good person.

Of course, not every novel has to be a trenchant political treatise; it just so happens that politics and ideas are a big part of what I read for, and a big part of what I remember and find notable about what I read. The Toby Daye novels are fun, light reads that make full use of the resonances of Celtic folklore, and A Red-Rose Chain is a strong entry in the series. That it’s not as politically conscious as I personally would like it to be is not wholly its fault.

Review: The Dragon Republic

This review contains spoilers for The Poppy War and The Dragon Republic.

The sequel to R.F. Kuang’s explosive first novel The Poppy War, The Dragon Republic confronts the spectre of imperialism even as it appears to de-emphasise its effects. Set in the fictional country of Nikara, a clear analogue of medieval China, it follows protagonist Rin in the aftermath of her decision to destroy the oppressive Federation of Mugen at the end of The Poppy War. Traumatised both by this decision and by the atrocities she witnessed during the Mugenese invasion, she and the shamanistic military unit she commands, the Cike, decide to join a military effort led by the warlord Vaisra to overthrow the Empress and bring democracy to Nikara. Rin hopes thereby to gain revenge on the Empress for her collaboration with the Mugenese. Vaisra, however, is being bankrolled by the Hesperians, this world’s version of white Europeans, who demand as the price of their support unrestricted access to Rin’s person, ostensibly for research purposes: the Hesperians believe that Rin’s shamanistic powers are a manifestation of Chaos, which, according to their uncompromising theology, must be stamped out in all its forms. For most of the novel the Hesperians appear to be minor, if annoying, participants in the grand political drama unfolding across Nikara, despite various indications to the contrary that crop up throughout the narrative; by the time it becomes apparent that they are behind vastly more of the novel’s political developments than anyone, including the reader, has realised, it is of course much too late.

The entire novel, then, is a lovely piece of authorial sleight-of-hand that enacts the ways in which white imperialism hides behind self-professedly noble intentions and disinterested philanthropy. Unfortunately, though, the very structure of the novel means that the Hesperians’ machinations largely take place off-page; while this does, importantly, centre Kuang’s non-Western characters, it also means that the novel’s focus lies mainly on the volatile political position Rin and the Cike find themselves in, and the military adventures they’re drawn into as they attempt to navigate it. Which, frankly, is not where my interest lies as a reader: it all feels rather grim, rather unrelentingly cynical, to me. It doesn’t help that Rin’s primary motivation throughout the novel is revenge: that cold-blooded, single-minded drive to get back at someone who has wronged you, personally, is not really an emotion I’m personally familiar with, and as a result I find it kind of hard to identify with characters whose arcs are powered by that urge.

A mismatch between book and reader, then. As I’ve said, I think the structure of The Dragon Republic is actually kind of masterful, and I’d love to have had more of that structural trickery. But, on the whole, this isn’t a novel that I’m going to feel inclined to read again.

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.