Tag: feminism strikes

Review: Voyage of the Basilisk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Habitation of the Blessed

Browsing Goodreads reviews for Catherynne M. Valente’s eighth novel The Habitation of the Blessed, I came across this note, written by someone who’d marked the book as “to-read”:

*sigh* According to the book’s summary, the premise is that the Kingdom of Prester John did exist and everything reported about it was true. That summary then goes on to say that it’s not a Christian kingdom, but rather blah blah blah blah. Right away I’m rolling my eyes. Given that the KEY FACTOR IN THE ACCOUNTS OF THE KINGDOM OF PRESTER JOHN was that it was a CHRISTIAN KINGDOM, then obviously everything reported about it WASN’T true according to this novel. I hate clumsy attempts at twists.

There are several negative reviews on the page that I disagree with, and even a couple of positive ones that largely seem to miss the point of the book, but this was the one that got me composing scathing responses in my head; because it seems to me that, far from being a “clumsy attempt at [a] twist”, this novel’s use of the Prester John story is actually deeply engaged with its Christian origins – something that should have been obvious if this reviewer had ever actually read the book.

Perhaps some context is useful here, because the tale of Prester John is now more obscure than it deserves to be – although it was immensely popular in its heyday. It seems that early in the twelfth century reports began circling of a wealthy Christian king ruling a fabulous land in the East. The reports were cemented by a letter supposedly written to the Byzantine Emperor by this very king, Prester John, describing the fantastical peoples he ruled over and the wonders of his magical country. Of course, there never was a Prester John, and the letter was likely written by a Westerner. But his legend held on till the seventeenth century, the supposed location of John’s kingdom shifting as Western explorers “discovered” more and more of the world.

So. Valente’s Prester John arrives in the land of Pentexore after his ship goes adrift in the Rimal, a great shifting sea of sand that separates this strange country from the mundane world he hails from. There he finds a stable, prosperous society of gryphons, cranes, pygmies, lions and stranger things: people with enormous ears or huge hands; headless blemmyae with their faces in their chests. The people of Pentexore are functionally immortal, being the possessors of an honest-to-goodness Fountain of Youth; to stave off the stagnancy of a deathless existence, they have the Abir, a lottery they run every three hundred years which assigns each person a new role in society: a new job, a new spouse, a new social status.

The meat of the book lies in John’s attempts to impose his theology and his understanding of the universe on Pentexore and its inhabitants. Right from the start we know that his coming to Pentexore will be disastrous, thanks to the novel’s intricate form: it’s made up of three interweaving accounts, one written by Prester John himself, one by Imtithal, nursemaid to the Queen of Pentexore’s three children, and one by Hagia, the woman who’ll come to be John’s wife. A fourth point of view is provided by Hiob, a fifteenth-century priest looking for news of Prester John who transcribes the three strange books that contain these accounts.

It’s Hagia’s account that’s the doom-laden one, as she looks back from some desolate future on John’s career in Pentexore. Hagia is a blemmye, a headless woman with eyes for nipples, which presents something of a moral quandary for the devout John: he sees her nakedness as sinful, whereas for Hagia it’s just a fact of her anatomy. (She’s hardly going to wear clothes that cover her eyes, after all.) This essential failure to come to terms with Hagia as she is, rather than viewing her through the lens of religious dogma, characterises John’s relationship with Pentexore as a whole: he insists on trying to read the land and its people Biblically. So he equates this land of immortals, with its Fountain of Youth, with the Garden of Eden; the mighty collapsed tower that forms one of its main landmarks must be the remains of Babel. Then there’s Qaspiel, a winged creature who looks to John like an angel, and who he persists in reverencing despite Qaspiel’s distress and discomfort at such treatment. John’s efforts at attempting to bring the word of God to the population may go awry – his pupils tolerant and amused by his fanciful stories – but the novel makes it clear that his dogmatic attitude is plenty dangerous all by itself: he sees Pentexore, its inhabitants and the Abir as tools for advancing the glory of his God.

I’m inclined to think that your reading of The Habitation of the Blessed will depend on your personal relationship with Christianity, as well as on your general readerly preoccupations – to a greater extent than normal, anyway. Although I come from a background that’s I suppose culturally Christian, I haven’t been a Christian since (ironically) Catholic school, and I have a general mistrust of Christianity’s record of homophobia, misogyny and colonialism. Accordingly, I never really saw John as anything other than a coloniser, an unintentional villain who’s all the more dangerous for his belief in his own righteousness. But I think there probably is space to read John as a more sympathetic character than I did: still a danger to Pentexore, but someone ultimately struggling with his religion in good faith. Not that John ever gets off lightly: his coming to Pentexore is no less a disaster for its inhabitants for the fact that he didn’t intend it to be. But the very fact that multiple readings are possible speaks to the subtlety and generosity of Valente’s characterisation.

The Habitation of the Blessed is a complex book, then, with its eloquently layered imagery, its bittersweetness, its intricate fourfold narration. It’s more, hmm, academic than the best of Valente’s work, her Radiances and Palimpsests; less lush and enchanting. But it’s still a deeply unusual novel: Valente clearly knows the time period well, and in the sea of romanticised medieval Englands that plague contemporary fantasy The Habitation of the Blessed stands out as a beautifully fashioned gem.

Review: The Essex Serpent

Why write another novel set in the Victorian period? The years between 1837 and 1901 must by now be some of the most fictionalised in Western literature: it seems we cannot resist returning to this contradictory historical moment that bears many of the hallmarks of modernity – the beginning of mass production, of urban sprawl, of globalisation and the increasingly byzantine nature of finance – while still retaining nostalgic vestiges of pre-industrial culture. It’s the modern era, butThe with better breeding and fancier dresses – at least if you belong to the middle and upper classes on which these novels almost invariably focus.

The particular Victorian debate which Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent examines is that around faith, superstition and science. Its heroine Cora Seaborne, freed from an abusive marriage by her husband’s death, travels to Colchester in search of fossils and is introduced to the vicar of a nearby parish, the Reverend William Ransome. Will hails from the village of Aldwinter, which is being plagued by rumours of the Essex Serpent, a creature said to be behind the eerie death of a young local man, the mutilation of several sheep, and the disappearance of at least one village child. Cora hopes to find that the Essex Serpent is a palaeontological relic, a survivor from the time of the dinosaurs, while Will is desperate to quell talk of the beast, seeing it as ungodly superstition, out of place in such rational times.

The conflict in the novel, then, is nothing so simple as the often reductively-expressed one of faith v. science: it’s much more subtle than that. Cora, an atheist, remains open to the possibility that the serpent exists, that the world is wider and more wonderful than Will’s rationalist Protestantism will allow; while Will the believer holds to what we might consider the sceptic’s point of view, thinking Cora’s belief and the villagers’ the product of a less enlightened age. Perry isn’t particularly interested in which one is right (although obviously the newly-emancipated Cora is the more sympathetic character); in fact she goes to great lengths to maintain an atmosphere of Gothic suggestiveness, hinting at eeriness without confirming or denying a tangible cause. As in so many Gothic novels, the ambiguity is the point: this is in part a novel about the collapse of neat categories like “faith” and “reason”, “friend” and “lover”, “real” and “imagined”.

The book’s extraordinary reputation – according to Wikipedia, it sold over 200,000 copies in hardback alone – is not unmerited: it’s a lovely, haunting tale, generous to its protagonists and expansive in its definition of love. But who’s missing?

For this is another novel that centres the already privileged, the prosperous and professional middle classes. The villagers of Aldwinter are mostly presented as untutored rustics, and we never really see things from their perspective. Cora’s companion Martha takes up the cause of socialism in the course of the book, and becomes interested in the plight of London slum-dwellers at the mercy of greedy landlords; but, again, the slum-dwellers who we do meet play only a small role in the narrative, the meat lying far away with Cora and Will. It’s not that Perry’s not aware of the working class in Victorian Britain; it’s not that she is exactly whitewashing anything. It’s that, well, what is The Essex Serpent doing that other novels haven’t done before? Do we really need another late Victorian novel about straight white middle class people wrestling with their personal problems?

I mean, we might do! I’m not saying no-one should ever write a Victorian novel again! But The Essex Serpent, lovely though it is, ultimately failed to convince me that we do. I enjoyed it a lot, but it never really felt urgent or necessary or unusual.

Review: The Thieves of Ostia

Caroline Lawrence’s The Thieves of Ostia is the first in her 17-book Roman Mysteries series for MG readers, which follows the various crime-solving exploits of its young heroine Flavia Gemina and her friends in various locations across the Roman Empire. This first novel sees Flavia assemble her squad (her Jewish neighbour Jonathan, the African slave Nubia, and mute orphan Lupus) and solve the murder of Jonathan’s dog Boba.

The novel’s primary purpose is didactic, as its back cover copy announces: it “tells you just what it was like to live in Ancient Rome.” (Interestingly, the same is true of the BBC TV series later adapted from it: Wikipedia cites a Times review calling it “a tremendous way for younger viewers to learn about ancient history.”) So, the gang careers around a historically accurate map of Ostia in AD 79; the text is sprinkled liberally with Latin and Latin-derived words like “pater”, “impluvium”, “sestercii” (all defined in a glossary at the back of the book); characters discuss, rather infodumpily, concepts like at what age it’s appropriate for one to recline to eat.

Does it really “tell you just what it was like to live in Ancient Rome”? Well: it certainly contains a lot of facts about Roman life and customs, woven quite palatably into a light crime narrative which is less upsetting than you’d expect given the number of dogs that die in it. Unfortunately, that factual density doesn’t really translate into a coherent emotional sense of what Ancient Rome was like: these are very much psychologically modern protagonists living in a Roman theme park. On the very first page, for example:

Flavia had just settled herself in the garden by the fountain, with a cup of peach juice and her favourite scroll.

I think it’s the facetiousness of “her favourite scroll” that makes this so wince-inducing; the implication that young Romans related to scrolls – cumbersome, handwritten things – exactly as we relate to books in an age of mass print media. Would it even have been practical to read a scroll on a bench in the garden, given the rather cumbersome format? What, for that matter, is Flavia’s “favourite scroll”?

Lawrence’s handling of slavery demonstrates a similar conceptual mismatch. Flavia buys Nubia early in the novel because Nubia is pretty and about Flavia’s age, and Flavia feels sorry for her – as are we supposed to. She treats Nubia as a friend and equal, and at one point has a discussion with her father about freeing her. Meanwhile, the slaver Venalicious, who sold Nubia to Flavia in the first place, is one of the text’s villains, a bogeyman who threatens to enslave Flavia and her friends at every opportunity. We’re not, however, encouraged to feel sorry for Flavia’s father’s house slaves, Caudex and Alma, who are both generally depicted as happy members of the family who just happen to do all of the menial work. Funny, too, how the perp turns out to be a greedy freedman (called, with thudding literalism, Libertus). Lawrence wants to establish Flavia as a sympathetic protagonist who does good whenever she can, but her cultural background doesn’t support that reading.

(It’s worth noting that there were other choices Lawrence could have made that wouldn’t have had Flavia endorsing slavery: Jonathan’s family don’t keep slaves for moral/religious reasons.)

Does this matter? The Thieves of Ostia is, after all, a children’s book; and one that’s pretty diverse for its age (how many other children’s novels from 2001 can you name that feature a black girl, a disabled person, multiple non-middle-class perspectives and a Jewish boy among their main characters? that aren’t Issues novels?). Is it really a failing that it does not portray Roman exceptionalism in all its gory detail?

Well, yes, in that it contributes to the general nostalgic rose-tinting of history in the West which falsely constructs the past as “a simpler time”, as basically just like today except without computers and gay people. (You can see this going on very clearly in that passage about the peach juice and Flavia’s favourite scroll: that’s so blatantly a cup of tea and a good book given a Roman spin.) Roman cities were crammed with shoddily built multi-storey tenements that would fall down at a moment’s notice. Roman women – even high-born ones like Flavia – had vanishingly few rights. Fire and disease were constant threats. Like, some of this stuff is alluded to in the text, and especially in later novels, but it’s all in this highly sanitised “oh isn’t this quaint” fashion which, to return to the claim on the book’s back cover, does not in any way convey what it would really have been like to live under those conditions. Or, more interestingly, how the Romans thought about those conditions – which would undoubtedly have been different to how we think about those conditions. Children are a lot more astute as readers than we give them credit for; children’s fiction should challenge preconceived notions and attitudes, not reinforce them.

Review: Sabriel

First published in 1995, Garth Nix’s Sabriel – the first novel in his Old Kingdom trilogy, which has now been expanded with two prequels – is something of a YA cult classic: though it hasn’t achieved the popular success of later-published YA series like the Twilight Saga or the Hunger Games, or even Philip Pullman’s contemporaneous His Dark Materials trilogy, it’s nevertheless a keystone text with a devoted following among SFF fans of a certain age. That devoted following, obviously, includes me: I first read it when I was ten or eleven (though it’s really meant for slightly older readers) and I’ve re-read it countless times since.

Its eponymous 18-year-old heroine is about to leave boarding school in Ancelstierre, a country with a vaguely 50s British vibe, when she receives a message intimating that her father is in trouble. Her father, though, is no ordinary man: he is the Abhorsen of the magical Old Kingdom bordering Ancelstierre, a necromancer charged not with raising the dead but with laying them back to rest. Something has trapped him in the river of Death, a perilous metaphysical watercourse where all sorts of uncanny beasties lurk. Instead of embarking on university and an ordinary life in Ancelstierre, Sabriel decides to cross the border into the Old Kingdom to search for her father’s body, without which she cannot bring back his spirit from the river.

In true YA fashion, it’s a novel about growing up and working out one’s place in society. The absent parent is of course a classic trope of YA and children’s literature, and Sabriel demonstrates why: in attempting to save her father, Sabriel effectively takes his place, donning the traditional garb of the Abhorsen, wielding his sword and taking up with his delightfully sarky feline companion Mogget. Her father’s absence, in other words, is exactly what empowers her to succeed him.

What’s significant about this process of self-discovery, of growing up, is that, despite Sabriel’s heritage and the relative vibrancy of the Old Kingdom, it’s framed through an Ancelstierran lens. Sabriel hasn’t lived in the Old Kingdom since she was five years old, so she spends much of the novel learning about its lore, its customs and the state of its affairs (parlous: it hasn’t had a government for twenty years or a monarch for two hundred). She interprets it all through the lens of her education, drawing on etiquette lessons, schoolgirl experiences and memories of Ancelstierre to navigate and relate to the various challenges she faces in the Old Kingdom. What’s more, the novel’s climax sees her return to her old school in order to fight off a magical incursion as mundane Ancelstierre becomes a target of Kerrigor, the terrifying Dead creature who’s responsible for her father’s imprisonment. She leaves Ancelstierre as a schoolgirl; she returns as a powerful woman, capable of commanding a military force as well as the teachers who once had authority over her. It’s a signal that she has taken up her place in the social order and become a functioning adult.

It’s also indicative of her ability to mediate between binaries, something else the novel is quite interested in. She is, as we’ve seen, a product of both mundane Ancelstierre and the magical Old Kingdom; it’s her ability to navigate Ancelstierran society, combined with the knowledge she has from her father and the assistance of her Old Kingdom allies, that ultimately allows her to save both countries from Kerrigor’s army. The low-key romance between her and Touchstone, the young man she rescues from magical suspension in the Old Kingdom, is another way of uniting Ancelstierre and the Old Kingdom. Additionally, as an Abhorsen, she’s unique in being able to combine the orderly power of Charter Magic, with its system of mystical marks that can be built up into spells, with the wild chaos of Free Magic, a dangerous tool that’s usually the sole province of rogue necromancers. This uniting of opposites is, I think, to do with medieval fantasy’s drive towards restoring order: as the official guardian of the border between Life and Death, the Abhorsen’s ability to live in two different worlds at once is key to preserving a natural balance of power in the kingdom. Restoring that balance is essential to restoring the Old Kingdom.

That drive towards order springs from the genre’s conservatism, and as such there are problematic aspects to the novel: the fact that power in the Old Kingdom is tied to bloodlines; the fact that every main character in the novel possesses significant privilege. And yet, when considered within the genre, Sabriel is quite progressive, especially for its time. Sabriel is a rounded, well-developed female character who gets to feel unsure, afraid, jealous, without compromising her heroism and bravery; she is, in short, convincingly characterised as a fairly ordinary 18-year-old thrust into extraordinary circumstances. Nor does “ordinary” mean “banal”: neither she nor her classmates are portrayed as shallow or disengaged from the world, despite their cloistered upbringing. Her romance with Touchstone is sweet and absolutely drama-free, and in no way distracts from her determination to save her father and defeat Kerrigor. There are even brief mentions of menstruation and sex: nothing detailed, nothing R-rated, but they’re there as acknowledgements that teenage girls do think about these things, and that’s valuable – especially in fantasy of this kind, where you’d think nobody ever had periods at all. Nix writes with great respect for his young protagonist, and it’s this that makes Sabriel and its sequels such a breath of fresh air.

This isn’t, then, a perfect novel; does such a thing even exist? But it’s telling that it does stand up pretty well to re-reading 26 years after its original publication. It’s certainly a novel that deserves to be better known, I think; it’s not until recently that I’ve realised just how lucky I was to have read this as a child, to have been able to internalise the message that girls can be just as strong and powerful and brave as the boys who populate so much fantasy. And even now, even with so much good feminist fantasy YA on the shelves, I can’t think of many circumstances in which I’d hesitate to recommend it – to adults as well as youngsters. It really is that good. If you’re into fantasy at all, do yourself a favour and buy a copy.

Review: How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?

N. K. Jemisin’s short story collection How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? is named for a 2013 essay of hers in which she discusses the lack of Black representation in SFF media. In that essay, she writes:

I wasn’t any more interested in all-black futures than I was in all-white futures. I just wanted fantasies of exploration and enchantment that didn’t slap me in the face with you don’t belong here messages. I just wanted to be able to relax and dream.

Her novels exemplify this pluralistic, fantastical outlook: the Hugo-winning Broken Earth trilogy is a story about colonialism and brutal oppression set in a multi-racial world where queerness is a run-of-the-mill reality; her standalone novel The Killing Moon features an Ancient Egypt analogue whose inhabitants practice dream-magic; in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, the first novel in the Inheritance trilogy, we find an incestuous divine threesome and, again, some fairly complex racial politics. These are novels that imagine new social possibilities, or that, in the case of the Broken Earth trilogy, are about the fight to reimagine how society works, to redefine who gets to be thought human.

The stories collected in How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?, then, are impressively diverse in terms of setting, tone and genre. We have steampunk set in a newly-free Haiti (“The Effluent Engine”); a far-future, alien-overlord dystopia (“Walking Awake”); a generation ship story with an all-Muslim cast of characters (“The Brides of Heaven”); a story of the Fair Folk in early-20th-century Alabama (“Red Dirt Witch”). There are even a couple of stories – “The Narcomancer” and “Stone Hunger” – set in worlds familiar from Jemisin’s later novels. What these stories do have in common, with each other and with the novels, is an ecstatic sense of the potential for change, brought about through revolution and protest; through connection with another being or society; or simply through a new understanding of the world and our place in it. Thus the Black heroine of “The Effluent Engine”, Jessaline Dumonde, tells her mixed-race romantic interest Eugenie, stuck in racist New Orleans, of a Haiti in which one’s ambition need not be limited by one’s race, gender or even sexual orientation. And in “On the Banks of the River Lex”, in which gods and anthropomorphic personifications linger apathetically in New York after the extinction of humanity, Death finds hope and the promise of new purpose in the burgeoning intelligence of an octopus.

Such change, though, rarely comes in these stories without a price. The opening story, “The Ones Who Stay and Fight”, stands as a sort of manifesto for the whole collection in this respect. A response to Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, it describes a utopian city, Um-Helat, organised around principles of mutual respect and support. Um-Helat’s prosperity and joy is perpetually threatened by transmissions from our own world, a place where “the notion that some people are less important than others has been allowed to take root”. Those who have been “tainted” by such transmissions – who have begun to believe in that notion – are summarily, humanely executed, lest the rot spread. This is a theme picked up on again and again in the collection: that pacifism is not enough in the face of oppressive structural violence, that tolerance is not a virtue to be extended to the intolerant. The heroines of both “Red Dirt Witch” and “Walking Awake” sacrifice themselves in order to bring about change – in one case killing an innocent bystander in the process. And when, in “The Effluent Engine”, privileged, sheltered Eugenie objects to her scientific prowess being used violently, Jessaline counters with the atrocities the French commander Rochambeau inflicted on the Haitians in the aftermath of their last failed rebellion. Eugenie’s mannered, Christian pacifism is made to seem ridiculous in the face of such atrocities: the oppressors, after all, did not obey such niceties.

This is not to portray How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? as a bleak read. There are stories that are horrible and uncomfortable or that end badly, but as a whole the collection is suffused with optimism, with vitality, with “exploration and enchantment”. Change may be difficult, but it is also wonderful: it exposes us to wonders, it allows us to build a more joyful world, a more joyful future, for everyone. In Jemisin’s own words in her introduction to the collection, “There’s the future over there. Let’s all go.”

2020 Roundup

Happy New Year to everyone using the Gregorian calendar! 2020 was a weird year: I read loads, much more than I have in any year since I started recording my reading in 2014, thanks to a lack of commute and social obligations; and although I read lots of thought-provoking, ambitious books, I’m not sure any of them were truly standout. Here’s my top ten from 2020 (read, not necessarily published, last year); and, afterwards, some stats from my spreadsheet.

Top Ten Books of 2020

  1. This Is How You Lose the Time War – Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone (2019). OK, when I said there were no standout books this year, that was a lie. This Is How You Lose the Time War is intricate, queer and devastatingly triumphant; its tale of mortal enemies attempting to build a space in which they can be together is both timely and timeless. I read it twice – once for pleasure, once for review – and cried both times.
  2. Speak Easy – Catherynne M. Valente (2015). A Prohibition-inspired retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses”, Speak Easy is everything I hoped it would be: a gem of a book full to bursting of Valente’s baroque, euphonious prose, a whole glittering, glamorous world conjured in its 142 pages.
  3. AuroraKim Stanley Robinson (2015). What surprised me most about Robinson’s take on the generation ship story was how this very science-focused novel gave me a new perspective on my own flavour of neopaganism: it’s all about the complexity of the feedback systems that keep us alive on this rock spinning through space, and the idea that everything affects everything else is a core neopagan tenet. It helped me reframe how science intersects with my own religion; in other words, how I understand the world at a fundamental level. And what more can we ask of our reading than that?
  4. Gideon the NinthTamsyn Muir (2019). This is here because it was so damn fun to read, its Gothic Gormenghast-esque space setting punctured by Gideon’s sarcastic, memeified voice: it’s a very now read, a novel aimed at a very specific subset of SFF-loving internet denizens. Plus: space lesbians!
  5. The Curse of Chalion – Lois McMaster Bujold (2001). I was quite dismissive of The Curse of Chalion while I was reading it, focusing more on the resistance I tend to experience when reading fantasy novels than its formal qualities. I think that’s because it’s best looked at as a whole, when its cathartic structure becomes visible and thus Bujold’s thesis on the intersection of free will and faith emerges fully. It’s a brilliant work of fantastic theology, and it manages to depict the mysteries of faith in a way that very few contemporary novels do.
  6. The People in the Trees – Hanya Yanigahara (2013). This is at times an extremely uncomfortable read: content warnings apply for child sexual abuse and quite graphic scenes of animal experimentation. It’s here for its combination of a Nabokovian unreliable narrator with themes of Western entitlement, colonialism and habitat destruction. Above all, it’s an extremely powerful portrait of a white man who believes himself superior to everyone else and thus beyond reproach, leaving him completely blind to his own selfishness and monstrosity.
  7. LentJo Walton (2019). Another religiously-focused work, Lent is a cleverly structured meditation on sin and redemption. Because it’s so immersed in its 15th century Italian setting, it gave me a lot to think about with regards to medieval Christianity and how it was practiced, and thus some ideas for my own religious practice too.
  8. The Lions of Al-Rassan – Guy Gavriel Kay (1995). I read a bunch of Kay’s work in 2020, mainly because that was what we had in the house, so The Lions of Al-Rassan stands here for a few of his novels. I like this one in particular for the clarity with which his three protagonists stand for three of the main political forces in his fictionalised Europe, making their friendship always already tenuous, verging on the impossible.
  9. Circe – Madeleine Miller (2018). Feminist rereadings of Greek myth and witchcraft are not new at this point, and so the trajectory that Circe’s story takes is perhaps not surprising; but I still enjoyed Miller’s complication of her portrayal as a tempting and dangerous seductress. The novel is both true to the original myths (albeit following one of the less familiar plotlines) and surprisingly satisfying in the end, as Circe manages to find some measure of peace and freedom.
  10. Piranesi – Susanna Clarke (2020). Piranesi‘s slow reveal of the truth about the strange world it’s set in gives it a sick kind of propulsiveness, as we come to realise that its generous-minded protagonist is being manipulated by people who believe themselves above reproach; in that sense it has some striking similarities with The People in the Trees. It’s also very gentle to those who its villains have harmed, rejecting narrative satisfaction to some degree in favour of recognising that such damage cannot necessarily be entirely undone.

Stats from my reading spreadsheet!

  • I read a huge 121 books in 2020; that’s 22 more than in 2019.
  • The longest book I read was Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind at a bloated 662 pages; Ian McEwan’s The Cockroach and Shaenon K. Garrity’s The Astonishing Excursions of Helen Narbon & Co., neither of them very compelling, are tied for shortest at 100 pages each. Overall, I read 41,837 pages in 2020, unsurprisingly considerably up from 2019’s 35,803.
  • The oldest book I read was E.T.A. Hoffman’s The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr, which was first published in 1820. The average age of the books I read in 2020 was just 12, down again from 14 in 2019.
  • Genre: 45% of the books I read in 2020 were fantasy, up from 31% in 2019; 26% were SF, unchanged from 2019. 12% were non-fiction, down from 2019’s 19%; just 8% were litfic, down from 15% in 2019 (although my personal definition of “litfic” changes from year to year so this figure is a bit finger-in-the-air). The other 9% consists of two comedy novels, two crime, three historical and two horror.
  • Surprisingly, just 9% of the books I read in 2020 were re-reads, down from 2019’s 11%. I would have thought this figure would be higher, given my lack of access to the library and other sources of new books during the pandemic.
  • 60% of the books I read in 2020 were by women and non-binary people, quite a lot up from 48% in 2019 (note: I read no non-binary authors in 2019, as far as I’m aware); I’m happy about this and also surprised – I expected my lack of library access to make my reading less diverse, not more.
  • On the other hand, I shouldn’t congratulate myself too soon: just 18% of the books I read in 2020 were by people of colour, down from 24% last year. I did expect this: I’m careful when borrowing books from the library to choose works by people of colour, but long periods of being forced to choose from the books I actually have on my bookshelves have revealed that those books are still very white. Going forward I’m committing to making sure that I’m buying books by people of colour in the same proportion as borrowing them from the library.
  • 15% of the books I read in 2020 were by queer authors, up from 5% in 2019. This is pretty good too, I think.

Review: Narbonic: The Perfect Collection Volume 2

So, here we are: the second half of Shaenon K. Garrity’s webcomic Narbonic, which ran daily between 2000 and 2006, recounting the adventures of mad scientist Helen Beta Narbon, IT guy Dave, intern Mell and superintelligent gerbil Artie.

Like I guess many comic strips, it’s as much a character-led thing as it is anything. Lots of plotty stuff happens – time travel, visits to the afterlife, gerbils scheming to destroy the human race – but viewed at the level of the book (as opposed to at the level of each strip, or each subplot) it’s all monster of the week type stuff: we probably vaguely want to know what happens but it’s not why we’re reading. Broadly speaking, we’re reading because we want to know whether Dave and Helen will end up together. So: character-led.

It’s a pleasant enough read: the characters are likable if broadly defined; some of the jokes are quite funny. I do think it reinforces gendered stereotypes as part of its humour; not mean-spiritedly, but identifiably. It’s also not pushing anywhere, by which I mean that it stays firmly within the bounds of its genre. But it’s fun, and non-taxing, and sometimes that’s exactly what we need.

Review: The Empress of Salt and Fortune

Nghi Vo’s novella The Empress of Salt and Fortune is a brief, bittersweet story about power, misogyny and the weight of history. Shortly after the death of the Empress In-yo, the cleric Chih, on their way to the capital to welcome the new empress, learns that the sites she had put under imperial lock have now been declassified. On a whim, they decide to turn aside to Lake Scarlet, the place where In-yo once lived in exile; there, they find Rabbit, In-yo’s old servant. While Chih works to index and record the contents of the house at Lake Scarlet (assisted by their assistant, the neixan Almost Brilliant), Rabbit tells them tales of the empress in her exile, a young bride from a neighbouring country discarded as soon as she had given the emperor a son. How does that lost castaway become the powerful and venerable Empress of Salt and Fortune?

Vo’s novella reminds me in some respects of Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor: both texts are about young people, exiles, climbing to ultimate power in foreign courts. I think Vo’s book has more teeth, however, and more to say: whereas Addison’s novel is mostly concerned with the ways in which its protagonist strives to be a kind ruler – thereby obscuring the inherent cruelty of monarchical rule – Vo’s is fully aware of the ruthlessness In-yo must show to survive and thrive in her position, and of the sacrifices she must demand of her servants. In-yo says to Rabbit at a pivotal moment:

“I have taken everything from you. It is the nature of royalty, I am afraid, what we are bred for and what we are taught.”

The Empress of Salt and Fortune is also more formally ambitious than Addison’s novel: Rabbit is not a reliable narrator (unlike Addison’s third-person omniscient voice), she misdirects, leaves things unspoken and implied. This is, I think, a form of resistance to the sweep of history and thus of patriarchal power: by keeping parts of her relationship with In-yo hidden from Chih, the empire’s official archivist, Rabbit chooses to leave the historical record incomplete, troubling history’s claim to accuracy and authority.

Needless to say, this kind of thing is very much My Jam, and if it sounds like yours you should probably pick up The Empress of Salt and Fortune. It’s sharp enough and icy enough and of-the-moment enough that I’ll be surprised if it’s not on at least one awards ballot next year.

Review: The Return of Heroic Failures

Stephen Pile’s The Return of Heroic Failures is a bathroom book. You know the type: collections of vaguely humorous anecdotes, for a certain value of “humour”, with which to while away a rainy Sunday afternoon or a visit to a relative whose taste in reading material is very different to yours. A successor to The Book of Heroic Failures, it contains stories of general human incompetence, neglect and plain foolishness. Categories include “The Least Successful Shipbuilding”, in which an Italian firm builds four ships for the Malaysian navy before discovering that the only way to the sea lies past a bridge none of them can fit underneath; “The Least Successful Attempt to Murder A Spouse”, concerning a man who makes seven unsuccessful attempts on his wife’s life without her even noticing; and “The Least Appropriate Speech”, in which a member of the House of Lords speaks for five minutes on entirely the wrong subject.

Having been published in 1988, some of the book’s humour is a little off-colour, shall we say, although I don’t remember anything particularly egregious, just the general background assumption that you the reader are a straight white male Westerner that you often get in this kind of book. As for the quality of its humour: I laughed a couple of times, but it’s more “mildly amusing” than “side-splittingly hilarious”. (But see my previous posts re my sense of humour, which is not highly developed.) Basically, it’s fine for a few hours’ entertainment, but I wouldn’t recommend shelling out more than a couple of quid for it in a charity shop.