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: Patternmaster

PatternmasterOctavia Butler’s 1976 novel Patternmaster occupies a slightly odd position in her oeuvre. Although it’s Butler’s first novel, chronologically it’s the last in her Patternist quartet, which also includes Mind of My Mind, Wild Seed and Clay’s Ark (as well as the now out-of-print Survivor, which Butler repudiated). The ideal reading order of the series is hotly contested: I haven’t read any of the other novels, but structurally Patternmaster is very strange for a series finale, and is slightly unsatisfactory even as a standalone.

Butler’s far-future North America is inhabited by a society of Patternists – telepaths connected to one another by a sort of mental energy field known as the Pattern. The most powerful Patternist, and the ruler of their society, is the titular Patternmaster, who at the time the novel takes place is an old man named Rayal.

The Patternists’ mortal enemies are the Clayarks, humans mutated almost beyond recognition by the Clayark disease. The Patternists believe that the Clayarks are essentially animals, and the two groups attack each other at every opportunity. Similarly, the Patternists call un-mutated, non-telepathic humans “mutes” and treat them like cattle, setting them to menial tasks in their households.

Our protagonist is Teray, a young and gifted Patternist just out of school who’s forced into servitude by his older, more powerful brother Coransee. Coransee is the strongest of Rayal’s sons, and hopes that by removing Teray from the equation he can secure his succession to the role of Patternmaster when Rayal dies. Teray, of course, has other ideas, and together with a healer named Amber he embarks upon a dangerous journey across the country to seek sanctuary from Coransee’s scheming and the mental control with which Coransee threatens him.

What makes Patternmaster so odd, considered as an SF dystopia, is that nothing really changes in it: it’s fundamentally a novel about how entrenched power structures perpetuate themselves. As Teray journeys across the Patternist world, he experiences its various injustices both in his own person – as when his sister-wife Iray is taken from him by Coransee, thanks to laws and social mores that give Housemasters absolute power over their households – and through observation of how Patternist society treats various groups (the Clayarks, Patternist women, the mutes). As genre-savvy readers, we might expect that Teray will use his burgeoning powers to resist the society in which these injustices are allowed to thrive – especially given his romance with Amber, whose position as a wandering healer is politically tenuous, leaving her as it does at the mercy of various male Housemasters. (She is also bisexual in a world that doesn’t really understand female bisexuality.) Instead, however, Teray continues to seek power within that society – to take the place of the oppressors rather than overthrow them.

It’s a bleak vision of the future, one in which humanity’s descendants continue to tear each other apart and old prejudices still hold; in which those with the power to change things choose simply to maintain the status quo. I don’t think that this is how Butler thinks the future really will look: all dystopias are, after all, reflections of the concerns of the time they’re written in. But it’s striking how relevant Patternmaster‘s concerns still are today, how inescapable our own power structures increasingly feel. I can’t say I precisely enjoyed Patternmaster: it’s too bleak and too stark for my taste. But it’s certainly doing a lot of heavy lifting for such a slight volume, and I’m interested to read the rest of the series.

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: The Overstory

The OverstoryOne of the main criticisms that I’ve seen levelled against Richard Powers’ Booker-shortlisted eco-novel The Overstory is its lack of complex characterisation. In a judgement for the Tournament of Books, for example, Tomi Obaro writes that “Characters increasingly felt more like archetypes than real, lived-in people…[Powers] loses the people for the trees.” Others have pointed out its use of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope and its stereotyping of its Chinese-American and Indian-American characters. These flaws all undoubtedly exist; but they’re interesting to me because I think they’re by-products of an attempt to write a literary novel that is not anthropocentric. That is: if Powers misses the people for the trees, it’s because he means to.

It’s a messy novel, hard to summarise, that weaves together multiple strands and plotlines; but at its heart it brings together nine-ish characters whose lives have been changed or shaped, for better or for worse, by trees. Neelay Mehta falls from a tree as a child and is permanently paralysed; Olivia Vandergriff, having undergone a near-death experience, hears the voices of the USA’s last redwood trees calling on her to protect them; Nicholas Hoel is the inheritor of a remarkable family heirloom, a collection of old-style analogue photographs of a chestnut tree, taken every day from the same angle for close on a century. And so on. Many of these stories eventually become woven around tree-focused activism of some sort: a camp of hippies defending virgin forest against loggers; weeks spent in the branches of a towering redwood slated for felling; amateur arson in the dark.

What makes the novel different from the countless such sprawling social narratives Western literary culture has produced since Dickens (see also: Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru; Jonathan Franzen’s Purity; David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks; and so on) is Powers’ ascribing of intent to the trees: they narrate key passages as a sort of Greek chorus, and may or may not influence events in the narrative. This is well and subtly done: the trees’ narration is used sparingly enough that it never becomes cheap or trite or easy, and similarly their agency in the story is always sufficiently doubtful (is the compulsion Olivia feels just a side-effect of her accident? Did that tree really tip Neelay to the ground, or is that an impression born of a child’s overactive imagination?) that their true purposes remain unknowable, just out of sight. The trees of The Overstory are not wise, kindly Treebeards on the side of all good people; the effect is rather that of a vast, unknowable, alien presence lurking just off-page.

Powers writes with wonder and awe of the things that trees can do: of forests connected to a single underground organism spreading across acres; of the organic chemicals they emit to communicate with each other, chemicals that can even affect humans; of the incredible feats of biology that allow giant redwoods to draw water and nutrients up fifty metres into the air. In the face of their age, majesty and size, and the vast tragedy that is the deforestation of the USA, the actions of individual humans, however well-intentioned, begin to look increasingly irrelevant and futile. The trees, in other words, are the true protagonist of The Understory; individual trees (Mimas the giant redwood, the Hoel chestnut, the evergreen grove that engineer Mimi Ma fails to save) as well as trees in the abstract; and if the human characters are thinly sketched and their motivations questionable, it’s because they are, for Powers, not the focus of the story. Their individual subjectivities are relatively insignificant in the grand scale of the narrative.

It’s a bold approach for a genre like litfic that is generally focused on the individual bourgeois psyche, and not one that’s entirely successful. That the human characters are not ultimately important does not mean that they need to be lazy stereotypes; indeed, using such stereotypes in this way to gesture at humanity in the abstract suggests problematically that Powers thinks such stereotypes are true, or at the very least accurately representative. There are also odd threads of story that Powers fails to weave wholly successfully into his narrative tapestry: Neelay’s plotline, which sees him developing a massively profitable MMORPG based on exploring and developing a virgin world, seems poorly thematically integrated into the rest of the novel; similarly, it’s hard to see where stroke-paralysed Ray and his unfaithful but caring wife Dottie fit in. Ray and Dottie’s imaginary daughter is called Olivia, a detail which, together with the fact that another character’s story has an alternative ending that depends on whether she meets Neelay or not, suggests an underdeveloped mystical/many-worlds angle. It’s as if Powers has gone for a Cloud Atlas-ish “everything is connected” vibe without quite knowing what he intends to do with it.

And yet, for all its flaws, I find myself thinking of The Overstory when I’m out among trees, thinking of that vast and unknowable consciousness and all the things we’re still learning about these remarkable organisms that we share our planet with. The Overstory may be a flawed attempt to grapple with a non-human perspective, but it’s attempt I’ve seen relatively few writers make, especially outside the walled garden of SFF. So many of our narratives about the climate crisis and biodiversity loss centre humanity, even those that cast us as the villains; perhaps, if we are to reverse the damage we are doing to the natural world, radical change and radical approaches are needed. Powers’ is one such approach; I hope others will follow.

Review: Possession

PossessionIn the foreword to her bestselling romantic novel Possession (1990), A.S. Byatt discusses the various meanings of the work’s title: the physical ownership of an item; the state of being taken over, possessed, by a strong emotion or an evil spirit; the sense in which one’s lover belongs to one. The novel addresses all these forms of possession, and a couple of others, in various ways, particularly through the lens of academia and the practice of studying the work and lives of the long dead.

It centres on two British scholars, Roland Michell and Dr Maud Bailey, who specialise in the writings of two fictional Victorian poets – respectively, Randolph Henry Ash, a man with the sort of literary reputation that Tennyson or Wordsworth have in our world; and Christabel LaMotte, a “minor” poet whose work has recently been rediscovered by third-wave feminists. Roland and Maud are brought together when Roland finds and steals a previously unknown letter written by Ash to a woman later discovered to be LaMotte. Together, they investigate the connection, piecing together the story of Ash and LaMotte’s romance, which is complicated in plausibly Victorian ways by the fact that Ash is married and by LaMotte’s proto-feminist, possibly sapphically-underpinned desire for a quiet life of self-reliant sisterhood with her companion Blanche. Meanwhile, in the present day, both Roland and Maud are dealing with their own romantic disappointments (which parallel Ash and LaMotte’s in quite interesting ways), as well as attempting to outrun the investigations of two prominent Ash scholars who they suspect will try and take ownership of the story in their own ways.

One of the things that stands out most to me about Possession is how steeped it is in the culture and practice of academia, and how interested it is in the concerns of career academics. A former academic herself, Byatt understands what a Big Fucking Deal it is when Roland steals an uncatalogued letter instead of reporting it to the librarian, and how much, career-wise, depends for her characters on whether they can get first dibs on the Ash-LaMotte story; and these pressures, these concerns are central to the novel’s narrative engine. This is academia seen not as an ivory tower where intellectuals are empowered to live pure lives of the mind, which is how it tends to be portrayed in mainstream works like Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian or Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, but as a field rife with internecine struggles that largely have nothing to do with the actual research being undertaken.

In particular, it’s fascinating to see Byatt drawing out how apparently administrative concerns like who owns a particular letter, or who has the rights to edit a body of work, can materially affect whole areas of scholarship; in other words, how questions of ownership and possession play out in this supposedly disinterested profession. A pressing issue for Roland and Maud in the novel is who the legal owner of a bundle of previously unknown letters between Ash and LaMotte is, and thus whether they can be sold away to an American collector before anyone gets a chance to study them properly.

These questions appear in guises beyond the material too. Roland, Maud and the Ash scholars on their trail all feel a sense of ownership over the Ash-LaMotte correspondence, and over the lives and work of two once-living people, on the basis that they themselves have dedicated their working lives to analysing those people’s words and material realities. They all feel entitled to claim either Ash’s work or LaMotte’s for their various ideologies – whether feminist, Great Man-patriarchal or psychosexual. Byatt ironises the legitimacy of these feelings of entitlement and ownership by giving the reader a direct, third-person omniscient window into the poets’ romance at several points in the narrative – granting us knowledge that none of the modern-day characters possess, and thereby demonstrating the shakiness of the hold the scholars have on Ash and LaMotte’s lives, which are too messy and fraught for any single ideology to capture.

It’s tempting to see in this a response to the debate over the usefulness of theory in the analysis of literary texts that raged in the 1980s and 90s. Several times Byatt refers to the contemporary vogue for psychosexual readings of historic texts, and draws attention to the ways in which such readings reveal the limitations of the culture in which they’re produced; these readings, for Byatt, close down avenues of interpretation rather than opening them up, acting as ways to classify texts rather than as productive approaches to them. In the same way, no one single ideology is ultimately sufficient to encapsulate the reality of what went on between Ash and LaMotte in Byatt’s novel, and attempting to impose a simple interpretation onto their relationship – to claim ownership of the ability and the right to do so – is to do violence to the complex and contradictory reality of their lives and emotions.

This all might seem rather abstruse for a mainstream novel, but in the social media age it has resonances that Byatt cannot have foreseen. What Roland and Maud do to Ash and LaMotte is not very different to what we do when we follow celebrities and people in the public eye on Twitter and Facebook: we assume that their public personae represent authentically the entirety of who they are as people, we imagine ourselves as their friends, and we assume that we’re entitled to their innermost thoughts and feelings. Possession is a story about the perils of reading, and the impossibility of accessing the fullness of a person through their writing: as Byatt reveals, the reader’s biases are always in play. Formally adventurous (it features over 1000 lines of faux-Victorian poetry), emotionally complex and deeply informed by literary theory, it’s a wonderfully satisfying, layered novel that I can readily see myself returning to.

Review: Trust Exercise

TW: child sexual abuse; rape.

Trust ExerciseFor something like half a millennium – ever since the rise of Protestantism and with it the doctrine that the way to God is through private study of the Bible – the English-speaking world has been obsessed with the idea that in the written word lies ultimate truth. As readers and as participants in any sort of public discourse, we’re conditioned to seek out an objective, overriding Truth, even when we’re reading novels with self-evidently unreliable narrators. Texts like Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, or Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, or Hanya Yanigihara’s The People in the Trees, whose narrators all conceal key facts from the reader in one way or another, nevertheless ask the reader to reconstruct an objective truth from these unreliable accounts; in fact their effectiveness depends on it. Susan Choi’s National Book Award-winning novel Trust Exercise completely confounds such reconstruction, and with it the comforting notion that there is such a thing as perfect, objective truth.

It begins conventionally enough, at a prestigious performing arts school in a generic American city, where two fourteen-year-olds, Sarah and David, have the hots for each other. Intense as their mutual crush is, it quickly turns sour, partly because they’re both at the age when any slight feels like a mjaor betrayal, and partly because of the emotional manipulation of their acting teacher, the charismatic, creepy and almost certainly paedophilic Mr Kingsley.

Enter the second section, however, and everything we understand about how Choi’s narrative is unfolding comes undone. The second section is narrated by Karen, a peripheral character from the first section, who reveals that the first section is a fiction, a novelisation of what really happened written by Sarah herself. Karen goes on to relate her version of events, which involves another unhappy teenage infatuation featuring another abusive teacher, Martin. The third and final section, which is very brief indeed, is set some decades after the first two sections, and involves a young woman, again subject to unwanted sexual advances, trying to piece together something of her history, which is seemingly linked to the experiences of Sarah and Karen. This third section fails intentionally to provide any form of resolution or closure, either for its young narrator (whose identity remains obscure) or for the reader.

The result is an enormously shifty text, one in which solid facts are all but impossible to pin down. Both Sarah and Karen, we sense, have altered their stories in the face of adolescent trauma, so they can better process what has happened to them; but by the same token neither of them are exactly lying. Their stories are true to them; and since there’s no way for us as observers to access the truth of “what really happened”, that truth effectively does not exist. All we have is a core emotional truth, about power, vulnerability and the shame that survivors of sexual abuse experience – a shame that’s transmitted down through generations and ultimately prevents the abuse from being named for what it is.

Trust Exercise‘s shiftiness made me think of rape trials and their abysmally low conviction rates. The entire apparatus of Western justice is set up to ascertain a single objective truth; to reconcile conflicting accounts and pieces of information in an attempt to find out “what really happened”. But – outside particularly extreme cases – what “objective” evidence is there for rape, beyond the survivor’s account? Everyone knows what rape is, but actually ascertaining, from the outside, whether it happened is a shifty and slippery business. For me, Trust Exercise demonstrates that we as a society need different ways to talk about, and deal with, rape and sexual abuse; ways that acknowledge the emotional trauma these crimes inflict on survivors, and how the demand for objective truth can itself be damaging. Postmodern theatrics such as those Choi deploys in this novel can feel empty and gimmicky, challenging traditional structures of meaning to no apparent purpose; here, Choi puts them to work to examine how conventional modes of reading and truthseeking reinforce abusive and uneven power structures.

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: 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.

Review: Mossflower

This review contains spoilers.

MossflowerThe Goodreads page for Brian Jacques’ Mossflower, the second novel in his Redwall series (in publication order, that is; chronologically it’s third) for middle grade readers, is full of delighted reviews from adults who’ve revisited a childhood favourite and discovered that it measures up. Of course there are not many 12-year-olds writing Goodreads reviews of any book (in fact it’s against their terms of service); but compare it to something like The Wind Singer, a similarly iconic children’s novel published around the same time, and it’s obvious that the nostalgia is particularly strong with this one.

So what’s going on? I think it’s partly to do with the way Jacques constructs an idyllic English landscape that’s completely free of humans, and thus of the ennui and moral complexity that characterises modernity. The titular Mossflower is a region of woodland inhabited by hardworking mice, hedgehogs, moles and squirrels who are being tyrannised by the wildcat Lord Verdauga and his paranoid daughter Tsarmina. Our story begins when a wandering mouse named Martin is captured by Tsarmina’s troops and imprisoned in the wildcats’ castle, Kotir; there, in the dungeons, Martin meets Gonff, a merry thief who convinces him to join the woodlanders’ resistance. Together with a mole named Dinny, Martin and Gonff head out on a quest to the seashore, many days’ journey away, to find a legendary badger warrior who can help the people of Mossflower defeat Tsarmina.

One of the most notorious things about the series is the way it assigns morality based on species, despite ostensibly extolling the virtues of tolerance and peaceful coexistence. With a couple of exceptions, all rats, foxes, stoats, weasels, ferrets and wildcats are villains, while (with no exceptions) all mice, moles, squirrels, otters, badgers, shrews and hares are good, law-abiding folk. It makes a kind of emotional sense: we do think of rats, foxes and weasels as vermin, while otters, mice and moles are popularly conceived of as fluffy and benevolent. It’s also a comfortingly straightforward way of seeing the world: being able to tell good from bad just by looking makes a lot of things a lot easier. No need to decide which actions are wrong and which ones right; no need to differentiate morally between intent and impact; no need to give the benefit of the doubt to someone who ends up not deserving it. It is, of course, a falsely simplified model, and one that lies behind significant real-world harms (most notably racism, but also the unattainable beauty standards that disproportionately affect women around the world); but that simplicity is also seductive.

Another frequently-remarked-on feature of the Redwall books is their lavish descriptions of food: the woodlanders of Mossflower love a good banquet. A celebratory meal late in the novel features deeper ‘n ever pie, leek and onion broth, fruit pie, nut pudding, quince and apple crumble, plum pudding, October ale, cider and buttermilk – delicious-sounding, hearty and quintessentially British foods all, epitomising abundance and plenty. Again, it’s the stuff of blissful nostalgia, and again that nostalgia obscures something quite reactionary: all of this food has been prepared by housewife hedgehog Goody Stickle. (It’s worth noting here that while there are several prominent female characters, none of them go on the quest with Martin, and most of them are relegated to caring and domestic roles.)

What else? Well, there’s the consolatory plot structure, which sees Martin returning from his quest changed, with the skills and resources to oust Tsarmina and restore order and peace to Mossflower. There’s the squeaky clean romance between Gonff and a young mousemaid, which involves absolutely no drama or angst or awkward relationship conversations. There’s the slight Church of England vibe we get from the woodlanders, who early on welcome refugees from a place called Loamhedge Abbey, and who will go on to found the Mossflower-based Redwall Abbey (as we know from the novel’s frame narrative): their largely unexamined emphasis on inoffensive values like peace and mutual aid is reminiscent of the sort of gentle religiosity one experiences in Church of England schools.

What all of this adds up to, I think, is an overall textual affect that recalls popular constructions of childhood in the West. The moral and romantic simplicity, the importance and abundance of food, the ousting of evil by the forces of good, the unmarked Christianity: these are all hallmarks either of actual childhood or of what we as adults think it was like to be a child. Any adult re-reading a childhood favourite is in some sense attempting to revisit their childhood; but Mossflower, and the other Redwall books, make it much easier than most classic children’s texts to access the idealised, nostalgic version of childhood that we’re attempting to recapture when we do this. Its obvious ideological problems demonstrate the danger inherent in this sort of reading, and in our conceptions of children and childhood.

Review: Lirael

TW: suicidal ideation.

This review contains spoilers.

Like its predecessor Sabriel, Garth Nix’s Lirael is a classic fantasy tale of growing up and finding one’s place in the world. Its eponymous protagonist is, when the novel opens, fourteen, and profoundly miserable because she has not yet gained the gift of the Sight, the ability to see into the future that is the birthright of the mostly-female extended family and community that is the Clayr. She’s discovered contemplating suicide by a couple of senior Clayr, and to take her mind off things is offered a job in the Clayr’s Great Library, an appropriately magical and dangerous locale. Over the next few years, she inadvertently summons, and then befriends, a powerful magical being known as the Disreputable Dog, releases a monster into the Library and learns to bind it, and finally rediscovers a forgotten magical skill that holds the key to her heritage and her destiny. To complete this process of self-discovery, though, she must leave the home she’s known all her life and venture out into the Old Kingdom, in search of a young man from the mundane land of Ancelstierre, where magic doesn’t exist, who is unwittingly digging up something better left buried.

Something that struck me on this, my umpteenth re-read of Lirael, is how much Lirael’s journey to self-actualisation is tied to her heredity. The key discovery she makes in the novel is that she is the daughter of an Abhorsen, the Old Kingdom official who lays the powerful Dead that plague the kingdom to rest, working to foil the plots of necromancers. The post of Abhorsen is a hereditary one, and by a couple of other signs Lirael figures out that she (and not the hapless Prince Sameth, who we’ve seen repeatedly avoiding his studies of the necromancer’s text The Book of the Dead) is the Abhorsen-in-Waiting; and that, therefore, she will probably never have the Sight.

Lirael’s whole backstory is analogous to that of the bookish social outcast, the lonely high-school teen; one of the things the novel is addressing is the sense of inferiority young geeks often feel. You might not fit into the crowd now, Nix is saying, but there are other things you can do, other ways in which you are special. But it’s striking that the purpose Lirael ultimately finds for herself originates not in any particular skill or anything she’s worked to achieve, but in her parentage – in something she has no control over. It is basically an accident that this lonely young woman ultimately becomes one of the most important people in the Old Kingdom. The text works hard to conceal this, showing us her magical skill, her courage, her self-reliance as evidence of her worthiness. But that’s what it boils down to.

This somewhat undermines Nix’s core message about the possibility of finding belonging and purpose as a (former) geek social outcast. You can find self-actualisation even if you’re not popular – but only if you happen to be related to someone important. But it also implies an exceptionalism that plays into some pernicious real-world geek social fallacies: Lirael’s birth, and subsequent Chosen One status, makes her not just different to, but better than, the Sighted Clayr. What geeky teenager, after all, would rather be a Sighted Clayr than Lirael, who gets to explore a huge and mysterious magical library, and ends up becoming part of the royal family? Again, I think this is a tendency that the novel is trying to resist: none of the Sighted Clayr characters are shallow or cruel or gossipy the way they might be in a contemporary teen drama (apart from possibly the brusque and impatient Aunt Kirrith), and Lirael’s discovery of her parentage isn’t a magical panacea for her grief for the life she always thought she’d have. But it’s still there.

This emphasis on hereditary power is of course endemic to the fantasy genre; I suspect that Lirael‘s problems come from its participation in that genre rather than any particular authorial ideology (although opting not to scrutinise the power structures you’re working with as an author is an ideological choice in itself). And it’s handled better here than it is in other high fantasy texts; we can at least believe in Lirael’s personal ability to take on the role her birth has assigned her. Less excusable is the novel’s prose, which, in a marked departure from the accessible and relatively modern voice of Sabriel, has a portentous, overwritten quality which I imagine Nix feels is appropriate for his fantasy setting. (There probably is an argument for the difference in tone between the two novels: Sabriel was raised in Ancelstierre, which is early-to-mid-1900s in vibe, whereas Lireal belongs to the considerably more medieval Old Kingdom. But that’s not an excuse for the writing to get worse.)

Ultimately Lirael is still a novel that’s special to me; one I still enjoy, and one I’d still be moderately happy to press into the hands of another young person in the knowledge that it treats its female protagonist with respect and sensitivity. But it’s interesting – and, I’d argue, pretty important – to consider what kind of ideological considerations underlie beloved texts, and especially beloved children’s texts; if only so we can learn a bit about why we are who we are.