Ten Book-Related Problems I Have

  1. An obsessive TBR habit. I don’t mood-read. My everyday life is, I suspect like many people’s, deliberately constructed so I have to make as few decisions as humanly possible (because decisions are exhausting). Calling me a creature of habit would be an understatement. So, I have to read my physical TBR in a certain way: library books take priority because they have to be returned in three weeks; books I borrow from other people go next; and, finally, books I’ve bought or have been given go next, with new books added to the top of the pile. And I always read from the top of the pile. All this means that the books at the bottom of the pile can be there for years. I DIDN’T SAY IT MADE SENSE.
  2. My local library has virtually no SFF by POCs. For example: they have Adam Roberts’ latest book, The Real-Town Murders, which was published last year, in hardback. But they don’t have N.K. Jemisin’s Hugo award-winning, Nebula-nominated The Fifth Season, which was published way back in 2015. Roberts is an excellent author, but The Fifth Season is a big deal in genre circles right now. Why doesn’t my (large) local library have it?
  3. Not enough book space. My mother is currently on a campaign to get me to give away some of the children’s books I’m keeping at my parents’ house, because “there isn’t enough space”. But, really, who has enough book space? Didn’t Terry Pratchett once say never to trust anyone who does? Also, I live in a room with a big window, which is nice except it makes the pages of all my books go orange and their spines all faded.
  4. I find lending books difficult because I tend to lend out my favourites and they’re my friends and what if someone drops them in the bath or leaves them gathering dust in the corner or loses them or something and I never see them again?
  5. People trying to talk to me when I’m reading. The office where I work has a central kitchen area with tables to eat at, and I tend to spend half an hour of my lunch break reading there. At least once a week someone – and it’s always a man – will walk up to me and say something like, “Good book?” a) GO AWAY I’M READING BECAUSE I DON’T WANT TO TALK TO ANYONE ON MY LUNCH BREAK and b) why are you even asking, I’m reasonably sure you’re not actually interested in what I’m reading. Pro tip: don’t do this.
  6. The Lord of the Rings is important to me even though it is incredibly problematic and large stretches of it are, to put it irreverently, boring. (Yes, hello The Two Towers, I am looking at you.) But it’s so thoroughly a part of who I am that I actually can’t not read it once a year.
  7. I am inadvertently clumsy with my books. I always have a book with me, which inevitably means many of my books, once so lovely and shiny, get bumped and scuffed and occasionally rained on. The other week I fell on top of my bag and squashed an orange in there, which meant poor old Bridget Jones went back to the library a little more citrussy than it came out. I eat and drink while I’m reading, too, so they get crumbs in and bits of sauce and occasionally splashes of Earl Grey. On the one hand, it means my books record what I was doing when I read them. On the other hand…they start off so shiny!
  8. Running out of books on holiday. I actually did this recently, in Bologna, having drastically underestimated how much reading I would end up doing. Luckily, Bologna has a bookshop selling English-language books – although I did have to rearrange my luggage quite drastically. I am well aware this problem would be solved by using a Kindle. I don’t want to.
  9. I don’t really like literary fiction. This is a huge generalisation, I know; maybe a more accurate way of putting that would be, “I don’t really like realism” (I’ve read some lovely literary fiction recently by authors like Helen Oyeyemi, Zadie Smith, Ruth Ozeki and others, mainly as a result of the dearth of SFF by POCs in my local library.) Unfortunately, the vast majority of intelligent book conversation in the West is about literary, and principally realist, fiction. I love following the Tournament of Books every March, but I almost never read along, because I’m underwhelmed by so much litfic that gets praised in the course of the ToB. (Everyone said Cormac McCarthy’s The Road was the most harrowing thing they’d ever read. As an SFF reader, I’ve read bleaker apocalypses.) I wish we had more accessible criticism about non-realist and popular genres.
  10. My local library has a worse graphic novel section than my old local library did, which is fucking stupid when you consider how much bigger it is. It also means that I haven’t been able to read any Saga for the last year or so. *sob*

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Ten Characters Who Should Have Their Own Novel

  1. November – Palimpsest, Catherynne M. Valente. November is admittedly one of the protagonists of Palimpsest, but there are also four of them, so we don’t get to spend that much time with her. I’d love to know more about her past, or even her future in Palimpsest.
  2. Balthamos – The Amber Spyglass, Philip Pullman. It could be called THE ADVENTURES OF A SARCASTIC GAY ANGEL. (Except it couldn’t, because that’s a terrible title.)
  3. Adora Belle Dearheart – Going Postal, Terry Pratchett. THE ADVENTURES OF A STEAMPUNK BUSINESSWOMAN WHO AIN’T TAKING YOUR SHIT.
  4. Innon – The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin. I couldn’t remember his name when I was brainstorming this list, so I called him “that bisexual pirate from The Fifth Season“. Which just about covers it all, really.
  5. Belladonna Took – The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien. Because there’s a point when Gandalf refers to her as “poor Belladonna”, and as far as I know nobody ever explains why. Also, The Hobbit uses the word “she” once. Once.
  6. Lieutenant Tisarwat – Ancillary Mercy, Ann Leckie. What’s it like being half-tyrant? Not really knowing who you are any more? Tisarwat is a fascinating character who deserves more screentime.
  7. Foaly – Artemis Fowl, Eoin Colfer. Foaly is hands-down the best supporting character in Colfer’s series: sarcastic and paranoid and clever and brave in his own way. How did he end up as LEPrecon’s version of Q?
  8. Catherine Harcourt – Temeraire, Naomi Novik. What’s it like being a woman in the Aviator Corps? Does she experience sexism from her fellow officers? Her crew? How does she feel about being completely and irrevocably cut off from genteel society? Does she want to get married? Did she always know she was going to be an aviator? SO MANY QUESTIONS.
  9. Mogget – Sabriel, Garth Nix. We know that Mogget gets up to all kinds of mischief between his appearances in the books. How does he manage that? And why? There’s also an opportunity here to explore the morality of enslaving Mogget: on the one hand he’s a highly dangerous Free Magic creature; on the other hand, he’s a sentient being, and definitely unhappy with his situation. The books don’t really go into this, but there could be a rich seam of storytelling here.
  10. Miranda Carroll – Station Eleven, Emily St John Mandel. Miranda gets one of my favourite lines ever: “You don’t have to understand it. It’s mine.” I’d like to know more about the comic she’s writing about Station Eleven, about her marriage to Arthur Leander, about her life before the flu comes.

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Top Ten Places Books Have Made Me Want to Visit

  1. Istanbul. This was a by-product of Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, which is about a literary treasure hunt across Europe and makes Istanbul sound absolutely fascinating, a mix of ancient and modern. Sadly it’s not the safest place to visit at the moment.
  2. Exeter College, Oxford. I remember vividly, the first time I visited Oxford, using the map in Philip Pullman’s Lyra’s Oxford to find Jordan College. Which is Exeter. Yes, I am a nerd.
  3. The Discworld Emporium, Wincanton, Somerset. Do I really need to explain this? My parents now live within touching distance of Wincanton, anyway, so I’m hoping to visit very soon!
  4. The Shambles, York. The Shambles are the original of the Shades in Ankh-Morpork, the sprawling, smelly city-state in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. Fortunately you are approximately a hundred per cent less likely to get murdered in the Shambles than you are in the Shades. Although the prices in the shops there do amount to daylight robbery (some of them, anyway).
  5. Tolkien’s grave, Wolvercote Cemetery, Oxford. Tolkien’s buried with his wife Edith, and carved below their names are the names Beren and Luthien: the species-transcending lovers of The Silmarillion. When I went in February, there were fresh flowers there, but it wasn’t a shrine or anything; just solemn and sad and I had a moment.
  6. King’s Cross Station, London. YES I AM A VERY SAD PERSON AND I WAS EXCITED TO GO TO KING’S CROSS FOR THE FIRST TIME BECAUSE HARRY POTTER. I AM VERY SORRY.
  7. The Pump Room, Bath. This is a restaurant now; but wouldn’t be cool to go there and pretend to be a Jane Austen character? Yes. Yes it would.
  8. New Zealand. Actually I’m not a huge fan of the whole getting-on-a-plane-for-a-zillion-hours thing, but if I had to it would be New Zealand I’d go to – for, yes, Hobbiton and Mount Doom and Edoras and all the wonderful corners of Middle-earth. Actually, doing the Simple Walk into Mordor would be quite fun, for a given value of “fun”.
  9. The Whalebone Arch, Isle of Harris. The actual arch is less impressively Mievillean than I hoped it would be (I was thinking the Ribs from Perdido Street Station, which, not so much), but it’s still pretty cool: an arch made of the jawbones of a whale.
  10. East Coker, Somerset. Yes, because of that poem by T.S. Eliot. (Which I read part of at my granddad’s funeral in January, so it’s kind of important to me.) I don’t think there’s actually very much at East Coker, just one of a thousand tiny villages you’ll find in the hollows of the Somerset hills, but. But.

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Review: The Summer Tree

This review contains spoilers. TW: rape, suicide.

I am finally out of the woods of NaNoWriMo, and what a luxury it is to have as many words as I want to ramble about books in.

I mean, it’s a pity that my first post-NaNo review had to be about Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Summer Tree, which manages to be simultaneously enraging and utterly uninteresting, but the Spreadsheet of Books is merciless, and so here we are.

So. The Summer Tree is the first novel in Kay’s Fionavar trilogy (also called, with irritating preciousness, the Fionavar Tapestry), and feels like an unholy cross between Narnia, Tolkien and Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant novels. Five university students from our own world are taken, by a mysterious and not at all suspicious wizardy figure named Loren Silvercloak, to a fantasyland named (yes, you guessed it!) Fionavar. More specifically, they end up in the kingdom of Brennin, which is in the midst of a terrible drought because the High King has selfishly refused to sacrifice himself to the gods on the titular Summer Tree. There are also rumblings of a deeper evil at large in the kingdom: the orcs svart alfar are abroad, killing indiscriminately in the manner of evil fantasy races. Does this perchance have anything to do with the dark god Rakoth Maugrim, chained under a mountain for a thousand years?

Guess.

Like Stephen Donaldson, I think what Kay’s trying to do here is put psychologically modern characters into a Tolkienian fantasy world. (And, incidentally, I think both writers are doing so out of an urge to improve Tolkien: Wikipedia the Fount of All Knowledge informs me that Kay worked for Christopher Tolkien on editing The Silmarillion, which is suggestive at the very least.) But where Donaldson’s characters react believably and productively – Thomas Covenant’s refusal to believe that the Land is real may be frustrating, but it’s at least part of what helps him save it – Kay’s, um, don’t. They become part of the (forgive me) fabric of Fionavar, of Middle-earth, unquestioningly and thus problematically.

It almost goes without saying (though it shouldn’t) that Fionavar is a typically cod-medieval place: a land where women are wives and priestesses and seers while the men are fighters and drinkers and counsellors; where the dark-skinned people away south are decadent and evil; where the nomadic tribe in the north is a thinly-disguised, stereotyped Native American analogue; where criticising the king is punishable by death.

What rings really false about The Summer Tree is that the five bright university students from our own world – even a 1980s version of our own world – don’t question any of this. There are two women in the group: one of them, Jennifer, attracts the (unwanted) attention of Brennin’s crown prince, Diarmund, and though she pushes back on it the narrative fails to read Diarmund’s continued pursuit of her as actual harassment. And though one of the students criticises Diarmund’s execution of a peasant who spoke treason against the king, he gets over it pretty quickly, and in fact becomes Diarmund’s friend. (And I haven’t even mentioned the fact that two of the students enable Diarmund’s rape of a princess from that decadent southern country.)

There’s a particularly egregious and harmful moment when the real-world characters actually participate in Fionavar’s regressive social roles. One of the students, Paul, is severely depressed after the death of his girlfriend in a car accident. When he goes off to sacrifice himself on the Summer Tree and so end the drought, his best friend Kevin reacts to the news thusly:

Let him die for you, if he can’t live for himself…Let him go.

Kevin knows Paul is ill: earlier in the novel he’s said something like “he’s been sick for a long time” (I don’t have the novel to hand, thank goodness). Heroic self-sacrifice, in medieval-inflected contexts, is a performance of bravery and chivalry. Key to that performance, key to the value of the sacrifice in a chivalric culture is that the hero chooses to do it, cold-bloodedly, rationally. Whereas what Paul’s doing is suicide – he’s dying from the often terminal disease that is depression, and, crucially, he is not in a state to choose rationally to sacrifice himself. Equating suicide with self-sacrifice is fucking dangerous. “Letting” a depressed person “go” is an abdication of responsibility, not (as Kay sees it) a recognition of the depressed person’s right to choose.

For me, this is sort of the crux of what’s wrong with The Summer Tree: Kay’s blending incompatible sets of social mores (a medieval shame culture and a modern guilt culture), and in doing so ends up utterly misrepresenting both. It might have been interesting to see the five students learn the rules of this new fantasyland and start following them; or to see them critiquing Fionavar’s regressiveness (although that approach has its own problems). Kay’s gone for an unholy blend of both, and it’s deeply problematic, as well as just plain tedious.

TL; DR: Don’t try to fix Tolkien. No, really don’t. Unless you are literally a medieval scholar, you don’t know enough.

Also, don’t read this book.

Top Ten Underrated Fantasy Novels

  1. Palimpsest – Catherynne M. Valente. Nobody talks very much about Palimpsest, but it might actually be my favourite of Valente’s novels. The city of Palimpsest is at once beautiful and magical and painful and terrible; reading the novel makes the world seem wide and wonderful again.
  2. Titus Groan – Mervyn Peake. Hardly anyone outside academic circles has heard of Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, which seems ridiculous, because it’s had the most enormous impact on fantasy as a genre. It’s certainly not to everyone’s taste: it is dense, baroque, Gothically overwritten. I love it.
  3. A Face Like Glass – Frances Hardinge. Hardinge actually seems to be getting more press since The Lie Tree won the Costa; at least her new novel A Skinful of Shadows is being advertised on the Tube, which, surely, must be an Author Goal? A Face Like Glass is wonderful in ways that are similar to Palimpsest: the world where it’s set is horrifying and dystopic, but also lush and full of wonders.
  4. What is Not Yours is Not Yours – Helen Oyeyemi. The few reviews I’ve read of Oyeyemi’s collection of linked short stories have been vaguely critical of its unfocused nature; but to me that’s a feature, not a bug. I love the messiness of the book: again like Palimpsest, its inconclusiveness leaves doors open for wonder to creep in.
  5. Starbook – Ben Okri. Ben Okri is hardly underrated; nor is he a fantasy author, strictly speaking. But I’d never heard of Starbook before I stumbled across it in the library, which is a shame, because, although it has problems, it’s also very beautiful. It’s rare that anything I read really makes me see the world differently, and Starbook did.
  6. Lud-in-the-Mist – Hope Mirlees. Lud-in-the-Mist is a novel from a genre completely overshadowed by Tolkien and his literary descendants. Published in the 1920s, it’s a story of Fairyland – where Fairyland is at once alluring and perilous, sitting just out of reach over the horizon. It does wonder very well indeed, maintaining Fairyland’s mystique and magic right through to the end.
  7. Sorcerer to the Crown – Zen Cho. This is a fun, diverse Regency romance that draws on Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Like Clarke’s novel, it also scrutinises the self-defeating nature of institutional oppression.
  8. The Book of Taltos – Steven Brust. I’m not sure why I haven’t heard more about Brust’s novels: The Book of Taltos is one of the very few epic fantasy novels I’ve enjoyed recently, precisely because it doesn’t take itself very seriously. And because, I suspect, of its moral ambiguity: its protagonist, after all, is a wisecracking assassin.
  9. The Lathe of Heaven – Ursula Le Guin. The Lathe of Heaven feels more like fantasy than SF: it’s about dreams becoming reality, and nothing is more fantastical, probably, than dreams. I also get the impression that it’s one of Le Guin’s minor works – which still makes it better than whole swathes of SFF by other authors.
  10. Mortal Engines – Philip Reeve. I reread this first book in Reeve’s MG series about mobile cities preying on each other recently, and was seriously impressed by a) how steampunk it is, and b) how aware it is of institutional oppression. It’s a very sophisticated work of MG, and I want to get round to reading the sequels again soon.

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Review: The Wolf in the Attic

I don’t think there are words to express just how much I do not care about Paul Kearney’s The Wolf in the Attic.

The signs were, it has to be said, inauspicious. I got an uncorrected proof copy of the book in my Nine Worlds goodie bag this year; it was actually published last year. I would submit that if you are giving away uncorrected proof copies of your book for free a year after it was published then something has gone very wrong with your marketing strategy.

Notwithstanding this, the novel itself starts promisingly enough. Anna Francis is a young Greek refugee from the 1922 Great Fire of Smyrna; she and her father have fled to Oxford, a city where Anna meets Lewis and Tolkien briefly and randomly. Lonely and unhappy and dreaming of adventure, Anna runs into the woods, where she stumbles upon a group of Romany people, and…well, that’s where it all starts going a little bit wrong.

Now, by setting this story specifically in Oxford, and, further, name-dropping Lewis and Tolkien (I will admit to a little fangirl thrill when “Tollers” arrived on stage, as it were), Kearney’s obviously evoking a particular kind of story. They’re stories heavily based on folklore, on magic that’s tied very specifically to British landscapes; stories that feel true because they encode traditions we in Britain have been familiar with all our lives. And, sure enough, Anna’s travels with the Romany people sees her trekking across the landscapes of Oxfordshire, experiencing the terror of what might as well be one of Tolkien’s barrow-wights, taking shelter from mysterious shadowy figures called the Roadmen in stone circles. Putting Anna, a refugee, an immigrant, into this profoundly British narrative landscape is a really interesting thing to do; it makes a point about whose stories get told, and it has the potential to generate interference within these traditional narratives.

Unfortunately, Kearney doesn’t seem all that interested in actually scrutinising any of the chauvinistic bullshittery that often underlies those stories. The presentation of the Romany people in particular is hugely problematic. Kearney does give us a disclaimer of sorts which is presumably aimed at deflecting such criticism:

We’m of an old and wandering folk girl, a tribe as ancient as you Greeks – or the Jew-folk too, comes to that. The ignorant calls us Romani, but we ain’t the same as the travellin’ people, though we has dealings with ’em. Egypt is where our kind hails from, in the old, old part o’ the world.

Let’s unpack some of the problems in that passage, shall we? I’m sure we have nothing better to do with our Monday evening.

Firstly: it doesn’t matter that Kearney tells us that his “old and wandering folk” aren’t Romany people; we’re still going to read and remember them as Romany people, because all the traditional fictional markers that say to us “these are Romany people” are there – their existence in the woods and fields, on the edge of civilisation; their nomadic lifestyle; their exoticised mysticism. It goes without saying that these markers are othering and harmful. Secondly, there is just no excuse for that cod-dialect: not only is it deeply irritating to read, it’s, similarly, a constant and patronising reminder of otherness. Thirdly, that description of Egypt as “an old, old part o’ the world” (what does that even mean?) is massively exoticising, drawing as it does on the tired trope of mystical Egypt, Egypt as repository of ancient wisdom which is now to be trotted out for the benefit of the West. It is racism under a veneer of false respect.

To cap it all off, this “old and wandering folk” turn out, in a bizarre and totally unforeshadowed twist, to be the villains of the piece – predatory werewolves who’ve spent the whole novel deceiving Anna. I mean, really? Isn’t this one of the most obvious racist tropes there is? Surely someone should have spotted it before this went to print? Maybe in an uncorrected proof copy?

I also want to talk (briefly) about how Kearney treats femininity here. A fairly significant plot point in the novel is Anna getting her first period, while she’s on the run from the Roadmen, accompanied only by – how hilariously awkward! – A Boy. This is how he reacts (after handing her a woollen sock to soak it up with, which sounds like the most uncomfortable thing):

Don’t be looking at me to tell you more. It’s not a man’s business…T’ain’t my place.

That’s it? This girl is cold and in pain and scared of this new thing that’s happening to her and you give her a sock and that’s it?

And then, the Romany women explain to her later on:

We is all daughters o’ the moon Anna. We feel the waxing and waning of it in our bodies the way no man ever can. ‘Tis our gift and our curse. We brings forth life, but must bleed for it. Blood must be paid for everything.

This has quite clearly been written by someone who has no fucking idea what menstruating is actually like, and moreover has not bothered to ask anyone who does know. Menstruation is not a mystical or powerful thing (I promise!): it is uncomfortable, inconvenient and deeply unpleasant. Pretty much every woman in the world (and I’m generalising about gender roles here, I know, but this is a point that I feel needs to be made) is surrounded by men who don’t want to engage with the actual lived truth of what they experience each and every month of their lives; they’d rather ignore it altogether, or, as here, romanticise it in imagery that casts women as other, unknowable, participants in some secret and threatening mystery of life and death. As with Kearney’s presentation of the Romany people, this is discrimination masquerading as respect. We do need more women who menstruate in fantasy; we don’t need it like this.

I just…don’t understand how any of this book is supposed to hang together. Kearney doesn’t seem to know what story he’s trying to tell: a heavily symbolic tale about femininity? A realist story about being a refugee in Britain? A fantasy about a magical Oxford? The only way to describe the result is: “a mess”.

I’m reading Tolkien again

…because it’s October, and that means Tolkien Reading Marathon time. Because the days are shortening slowly but inexorably. And the leaves are turning to gold. And this failing season of autumn, when the world – at least this northern part of it – turns towards the long cold quiet of winter, when the year is old but not yet dead; this season of nostalgia when the blue dawn smells of woodsmoke and mists under the soft golden sun lull the earth to sleep; this is the season of the Elves, sailing, sailing, sailing over the sea, and leaving us.

For we are old now, and wise. And the Straight Road is lost to us.

Top Ten Books I’m Not Sure I Want to Read

  1. Our Lady of the Streets – Tom Pollock. I think the first two books had a lot of good things about them, representationally, but I didn’t like them very much. And do I want to waste a week of my reading life on the last one? Not particularly.
  2. Dune – Frank Herbert. This is an SF classic and everyone talks about it and I feel like I should read it. But every time I think about picking it up there are always newer and shinier and probably less sexist books looking accusingly at me.
  3. The Familiar, Volume 2: Into the Forest – Mark Z. Danielewski. I’ve been thinking about Volume 1, One Rainy Day in May, today, for review on Friday, and I’m not sure that it’s actually doing that much interesting work. I’m not that interested in postmodern ergodic literature that has nothing to say beyond gesturing to the falseness of narrative; I want something human to care about, godsdammit.
  4. Beren and Luthien – J.R.R. Tolkien. I’ve never been hugely interested in reading the Legendarium, beyond The Silmarillion, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings: most of it is a blatant money grab by the Tolkien Estate, and frankly I think the Professor would be appalled at how much of his unfinished work has made it out into the public domain. But I had a look at Beren and Luthien in my local library, and the illustrations by Alan Lee may be worth the cover price all by themselves.
  5. The Runes of the Earth – Stephen Donaldson. I enjoyed the Thomas Covenant books, especially the Second Chronicles, which was really a case of right book, right time. But, honestly, my heart sank when I found out there was a whole nother trilogy to plough through. Donaldson’s writing is not easy, and, really, how much more can there possibly be to write about the Land?
  6. Bete – Adam Roberts. I really like Roberts’ non-fiction: his SFF criticism is impressively erudite, and also funny. And I also enjoyed Jack Glass, a lot. But the other novels of his I’ve read – On and By Light Alone – both felt a little…joyless, if clever.
  7. The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home – Catherynne M. Valente. Well, firstly, this is the last Fairyland book, and that’s ridiculously sad. Secondly, though, I’ve been disappointed by the last couple of Fairyland books, so I’m not sure if it isn’t better just to leave this one alone.
  8. The Long Cosmos – Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. Again, I liked the early books in the series, but they’ve just seemed to get increasingly pointless. I’m not sure I can be bothered.
  9. The Mabinogion – Evangeline Walton. I keep seeing this in the library and thinking it might be fun to read; I’m a sucker for myths and legends and I don’t know much of The Mabinogion. But then, it’s also a massive book, and what if I find it really dull?
  10. The Causal Angel – Hannu Rajaniemi. Rajaniemi’s books are very clever, intricate things chock-full of future-speak. I can see that they’re technically good without being hugely invested in the story. In fact, I had absolutely no idea what was going on in The Fractal Prince, so I’m not actually invested in the story at all. I think I’ve probably had enough of his post-Singularity world, but who knows? If I can’t find anything else to read…

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Review: The Book of Taltos

I enjoyed this! It’s exactly the kind of book I always imagine when diving into a new fantasy series but never actually get. Which is excellent, because Brust is apparently a prolific writer, so there’s plenty more enjoyment waiting for me.

The Book of Taltos is actually two books in one: Taltos and Phoenix, both entries in Brust’s Vlad Taltos series. As the Author’s Note tells us, this is the kind of series – designedly so – that you can read in pretty much any order. Taltos is chronologically first, and this was the only volume they had in Forbidden Planet when I was there, so here we are.

Vlad Taltos is an assassin in Adrilankha, a key city of the Dragaeran Empire. The Dragaerans are, broadly speaking, not unadjacent to Tolkien’s Elves: they can live for centuries, they seem to be physically stronger than we are, and they practice sorcery. They’re organised into Houses, each named after an animal; each House gets a period of time in power (this period of time seems to run into the hundreds or perhaps thousands of years) before the cycle turns and the next House rises.

But Vlad isn’t a Dragaeran: he’s a human, an “Easterner”, a despised ethnic minority. That identity informs his character deeply – which makes for a really interesting read from a perspective we rarely see in fantasy.

Surprisingly, Taltos and Phoenix are very different books. Taltos is a light-hearted, self-conscious quest story: Vlad is contacted by a couple of powerful Dragaerans who half-blackmail, half-convince him to join them on a rescue mission to the land of the dead. Phoenix is an interesting companion to Taltos: more serious in tone, weightier in content, and set at least a decade later, it tells the story of one of the consequences of that rescue mission – murder, bloody revolt, and the breakdown of a marriage.

One of the absolute best things about these novels is Vlad’s first-person narrative voice, which is ironic, irreverent, and utterly unexpected in what feels like such a quintessential high fantasy setting:

“Welcome,” she said in a voice that rolled from her tongue, as smooth as glass and as soft as satin. “I am Sethra.”

No shit.

I’m not saying this is high literature: it’s not. But, and this is important, it also knows it’s not, and it’s not taking itself seriously. What it is is well-structured, with highly relatable characters (Vlad’s failing relationship with his wife in Phoenix feels just right, and exactly real – no romance of sugar here), and subtle, significant subversion of fantasy tropes. I do think there’s probably more to be said about why we value stories about criminals – Vlad’s a stereotype in that he’s an assassin, a person who kills people for money and who basically runs a mafia, but that he also has an inbuilt moral code so the reader doesn’t hate him too much. That could have done with more interrogation.

But The Book of Taltos is really solid fantasy, which is something I don’t say very much, and which is therefore higher praise than it sounds. I will definitely be reading more in this world.

NINE WORLDS 2017! Or, I Am Really Quite Proud Of Myself

So I went to the Nine Worlds geek fest convention for the second time over the weekend just gone. (At least, it was just gone when I started writing this post.) I went on my own, which I wasn’t quite expecting when I bought the ticket, and for this and other reasons it was a very different experience from last year. It was, in particular, far less terrifying than my first Nine Worlds – I feel like I got a lot more out of the con experience this year, and I’m proud of myself for doing a number of things that would have made me horribly anxious a year ago.

This is going to be a long, and quite personal, post. You have been warned.

Nine Worlds 2017!!

I arrived at the Novotel London West, in Hammersmith, on the Thursday night, after an extremely busy and stressful week at work (because, of course, it is fundamentally impossible to go on holiday without having a busy and stressful week at work beforehand). This being a deeply unhelpful state of mind to be in just before the emotional tour de force that is a three-day convention, I checked in, registered, and went straight to bed.

Friday: Mars One, the Mechanisms and More

Friday I wore Generic Steampunk, and received many compliments and an “Awesome Cosplay!” token, even though I wasn’t cosplaying anything. So that was lovely.

After the all-important meal that is breakfast, my first event of Friday morning was Studying Policy on Prevention of Terrorism in Education, a fascinating talk by PhD student and former teacher Megan Bettinson about the government requirement that schools promote “British values” – defined as democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and respect for and tolerance of different faiths. She pointed out that these terms are nowhere properly defined – which leads into worrying situations like fracking protestors being arrested under anti-terrorism laws because they’re breaking the rule of law. As someone who’s concerned about the current rhetoric around terrorism in Britain, I found this talk eye-opening and fascinating, and it was probably one of my favourite of the con. And I also did a thing I was proud of: I raised my hand and contributed to a discussion at the beginning of the talk about what the audience thought “British values” were. Last year I didn’t dare put my hand up in anything, and if I had it would only have been with much trepidation.

Next (after a quick chat with one of my TolkSoc friends who I saw across the corridor) was Undercover Geek: How to do Stealth Cosplay, another favourite: a talk about cosplaying in real life situations where full cosplay would be inappropriate. So, for instance, using block colours to evoke Disney characters or Star Trek redshirts, or wearing Deathly Hallows earrings at work. It wasn’t a particularly content-heavy session, but it turned into a bit of a conversation with the audience, and raised some interesting points about in-group identification and belonging. Stealth cosplay will definitely be something that I do! (I have already asked my sister for stealth cosplay items for my birthday in a couple of weeks…)

I grabbed a swift sandwich lunch at one of the (quite eye-wateringly expensive) hotel outlets before heading off to Classical Monsters in Popular Culture – a panel looking at the reception of classical monsters, mostly in films and TV. It started off well: Dr Liz Gloyn talked lucidly and intelligently about monster theory, which says that monsters are manifestations of what we worry about as a society, and then asked why, in that case, we’re still using monsters thought up in a very different time period in modern media.

Dr Amanda Potter followed this up by describing a couple of modern approaches to classical monsters: rationalisation (the Doctor Who model, which recasts monsters as aliens who have strange powers because of Science); making them sympathetic (mentioning the way that Atlantis’ Medusa tells Hercules to cut off her head and use it as a weapon – which to Potter makes her a heroine of sorts, though to me it reads “objectification”); and eroticising them. I wanted to know a bit more about why it’s important to modern creators to defuse classical monsters in these ways, and what it says about us as a society that these are the ways we choose to do it. That was my general impression of the panel: they touched on a number of topics without really addressing any of them quite adequately, and didn’t manage to come to any kind of thesis by the end.

It turned out that several of my TolkSoc friends had also attended this panel, so we all had a bit of a debrief (I had crisps; they had lunch), and then I headed off to Mars: The Journey of a Lifetime with one of them. This was a talk by Hannah Earnshaw, a Mars One candidate.

If you’ve not heard of it, Mars One is (probably) equal parts scam, publicity stunt and complete fucking lunacy. There is an entire post to be written about the fantasy that is Mars One; I direct you to this rather good one. In a nutshell, though, Mars One says they are going to send a crew of four on a one-way trip to Mars, for just $6bn, in 2032. Pretty much everyone else says they don’t have the technology, the funding, the people or the ability to do it. A group of PhD students from MIT found that, under its current plan, the first crew member would die within 68 days of landing on Mars, if they ever made it there in the first place.

I knew all this before I went to Earnshaw’s talk; but I hoped they might talk about what moves a person to sign up to leave Earth forever, to head out into the unknown. Instead, they reeled off what sounded suspiciously like pre-formed corporate drivel. We spent a good deal of the talk alternately sniggering and being bored.

Then there were the questions, which made it abundantly clear what kind of organisation Mars One is. There were many questions, about tiny details like, oh, why Mars One hasn’t published any scientific papers into its methods (because America won’t let them, apparently, which, what?), whether there’ll be a legal system on Mars (“we might have to have a sponsor country” – OK, that’s not a terrible answer, but it was clear that Mars One doesn’t have a plan in mind), and what’s going to happen about sex in a Mars colony. (Earnshaw implied that they wouldn’t want to raise children on Mars for at least a couple of decades after the landing, at which point, as my TolkSoc friend pointed out, the colonists would be about fifty years old.) I asked why Mars One has recruited members of the public as colonists rather than, say, the kind of people at NASA who have trained for a zillion years and have astrophysics PhDs. The answer? In a nutshell, Mars should belong to everybody.

OK, this is not the London Marathon, this is GOING TO MARS. There is a very real risk of death; and if the mission goes horribly wrong, there’s also a risk that no-one else will ever dare to try it again. This is not a place for rank amateurs and random sci-fi readers.

Moving on. The next panel I went to was Security for Beginners, whose description kind of intrigued me (“cyber/crypto security for activists and everyone else as well…things we can do for ourselves, so we can be ourselves online”). It was more techy than I was expecting (it says “beginners” right there in the title), and began with a request that nobody incriminate themselves (which, whoa), but touched on some interesting points about whether our real identity is the one online or the one IRL.

Straight after that I went to an RPG run by Rusty Quill called Zero Void, in which we (“we” being me and five strangers) were all space criminals fresh from a heist trying to obtain by nefarious means enough fuel to escape the Imperial forces. We ran into some space zombies and died in the end, but we had fun along the way, not least because the GM was Jonny D’Ville from THE ACTUAL MECHANISMS and I quietly fangirled for about three hours. What even is air.

Can I also just stop and emphasise that I spent three hours role-playing with some complete strangers. Again, that’s a thing that I’m enormously proud of myself for doing.

After the RPG – which finished at 9pm, in the middle of one of the panel slots – I went and ate an oily and not brilliant curry in the hotel lounge bar, and read Affinity by Sarah Waters until some people I knew turned up, and I ended up chatting to someone I’d never met (another point!) about Garth Nix and sexism in fantasy. Then we went to the Friday Nite Lite disco, which was fun and I knew some songs, but I was tired and went to bed reasonably early. (About midnight, I think.)

Saturday: Cosplay, Communism and Cabaret

Saturday was cosplay day! I woke up about an hour early, I was so excited, and ended up dancing around the room to the soundtracks from Sunless Sea and Fallen London. Because that, of course, was my cosplay: I had an Exceptional Hat, and a Bejewelled Cane (which featured about 240 plastic jewels I’d stuck on myself, by hand), and a long black opera coat, and here is a picture:

I received many “Awesome Cosplay!” tokens, though I also kept handing them out, so I never had enough on me to cash them in for a prize. Everyone loved my hat. (I took a whole suitcase full of hats to Nine Worlds.)

OK, let’s talk about the actual day. The first talk I went to was How to Write a Location You Can’t Go To, by urban fantasy author Melissa F. Olson. The talk itself was excellent: Olson gave a well-structured presentation covering not only how to write about somewhere you can’t visit but also what to do if you do manage to visit the place where you want to set your novel. Tips for writing about somewhere you can’t visit (which was the bit I was interested in: I’m writing a novel set in Crete in the mythology of the Greek gods, and also a short story set on the planet Trappist-1b) included finding someone who does live there who’s happy to answer random questions and to act as a beta reader, and looking at the local library’s internet presence to find out what the community there cares about. However, I felt she didn’t really know her audience very well, and that was particularly apparent when someone asked about how they should write about Mars, which no-one can go to (no, not even Mars One). She indicated that you’d have a lot more freedom to write about Mars, “because who’s going to tell you you’re wrong?”

Um. The many members of the geek community who are academics and scientists, maybe?

Next I went to Representations of the City in SFF, which currently ties for my favourite panel of the con: the panellists talked about ideas of the relationship between space and morality, which is exactly the kind of concept involved in the Grand Thesis I am constructing in my head about Gothic fiction and its haunted castles. The panel touched on Le Corbusier’s Modernist theories about purging antiques from our domestic lives so we become healthier and more productive – architecture as a way of creating better, more integrated, more economic citizens. Towards the end, they started talking about why utopian aspirations for architecture get talked about less than dystopian ones, and about the politics of high-rises – particularly interesting and pertinent in the wake of the Grenfell fire. I would really like to see another panel like this next year.

I met one of my TolkSoc friends there, so we had a chat about how much we enjoyed the panel, and found some of our other TolkSoc friends, and went to grab a quick sandwich with them before the next event, which for me was Cosplayers: Larp! I’ve never done any larping before; I’d like to say that this session encouraged me to do more. Unfortunately, I definitely think it could have done with  a bit more direction – the scenario was just, “these characters meet in a bar. Go.” Like, I know coming up with a proper campaign would be difficult without knowing which characters were going to turn up, but as it was a lot of people seemed to melt away throughout the session, and the handful of us left ended up having awkward, mock-drunken conversations about how depressed all our characters were. (Me: “We never see the sky in Fallen London! Never!”) I think I wanted the larping to be a bit more live action.

I found my TolkSoc friends again and we went to Dumbledore – Good or Evil?, a panel debate which one of my Oxford friends was taking part in. I’m not really particularly interested in taking Dumbledore seriously as a real person, just because so many of his decisions and actions are clearly a function of his role as headmaster of an upper-middle-class English boarding school, but for me the panel was fun and light and snarky and questioned some of the ideological bases of Rowling’s books, which is always good. As a serious debate it didn’t work too well – it failed, for instance, to define what “good” and “evil” actually were – but taking it for what it was, I enjoyed it.

Next we went to Poor Life Choices: A live choose your own adventure, in which the audience had to save the world by basically assembling an Avengers team. The choices were made by the simple expedient of the performer giving everyone a raffle ticket and pulling a number from a hat each time the script called for a choice to be made. I made a winning choice close to the end of the session which meant we collected Lucifer, so that was awesome! Overall the session was funny, the performer James Webster animated (though he spoke perhaps a little too fast at times), and the script at times poetic without being parodic or over-flown – a difficult balance to achieve, I think.

Everyone wandered off at this point, so I had a hot dog at one of the hotel outlets (yay for excellent food choices at conventions!). I skipped the next session in favour of a glass of wine and Affinity in the bar, and then we all went to the Bifrost Cabaret! This was mostly excellent: I can never remember the names of acts, but there was a balloon animal magician who was very funny, a singer-songwriter who sang the song about rubbish feminists rescuing Rapunzel that I just cannot find on the internet anywhere and which I heard and liked last year as well (I think the singer was Alice Nicholls, but the song doesn’t seem to be on her Bandcamp), and someone reciting their mildly filthy but also rather sweet poetry. (Normally I am of the opinion that there is almost no excuse for reciting your own poetry on stage, but there’s an exception to every rule.) We just about managed to escape MC Skywalker, who we saw last year rapping incomprehensibly about Star Wars, and all-out ran from the last act of the second half, which seemed to consist entirely of leading unsuspecting members of the audience up onto the stage to dance, which, nope. We all noped.

There was a brief space between the cabaret and the Bifrost disco; I ended up following my TolkSoc friends to the hotel room where one of their friends was staying (another scary thing I did!) and drinking wine out of plastic cups and chatting.

The disco itself was, sadly, a disappointment: we missed the early part of it (but isn’t this standard disco practice?), so it’s quite possible we missed the geekier songs, but I only knew about three songs in the whole night, and everyone else said the same thing. Mainly it was techno/heavy metal type stuff which you can’t really dance to and which seems to exist solely to assault your ears. We kept going back to see if the music was getting any better, but it didn’t. So then I chatted until 3:30am in the bar about Steven Moffat, and that was fun.

Sunday: BookTube, Blanket Forts and Brilliant Hats

Four hours’ sleep later, it was the last day of Nine Worlds. (Sad face.) I was in Low-Key Steampunk, with another hat that also garnered compliments. My first panel, at the unearthly time of 10am (remember: four hours’ sleep), was BookTube – Reviewing Books in the 21st Century, which was really geared towards people looking to start a BookTube channel – i.e, not me. (I have this blog!) Nevertheless, it was interesting to hear that none of the panellists really had any technical equipment when they started; and one of them (who I met on Friday night) worked for a publishing house, so it was interesting to hear from her perspective.

Next, for me, was Protocols for the education of young witches and wizards, in which Alison Baker discussed her research into approaches to education in the Harry Potter, Bartimaeus and Tiffany Aching series. (I went just for Tiffany Aching, naturally.) Like the Classical Monsters panel on Friday, this started off promisingly, with Baker looking at the different teaching styles of Hogwarts teachers (basically, Lupin is the only good teacher at Hogwarts. Harry is also a good teacher, apparently), but tailed off into description rather than analysis. She suggested of the Discworld series that education that doesn’t teach people to be good members of the community – in other words, the education delivered at Unseen University – is portrayed as useless and sterile. I found myself pushing back against this idea, actually: while Pratchett clearly has a lot less respect for the wizards of Unseen than he does for the self-taught witches, I also feel that part of Pratchett’s point in the Discworld series is that everyone has a place in society and a way of contributing to it. The wizards, for example, do save the Disc on at least one occasion (Reaper Man, I think?) and assist in saving it, however cack-handedly, in other books. (Going Postal, Hogfather, The Last Hero.) It’s when people don’t find a place for themselves that things go wrong. Obviously that kind of analysis wasn’t really in the scope of Baker’s talk, but I felt she could have said more about the larger societies depicted in each series.

Next was the session I was probably most looking forward to in the whole convention: Social Gaming with the Haberdashery Collective, basically an hour of playing silly party games like lemon jousting (now a stalwart at TolkSoc meetings), Ninja – where you strike your best ninja poses in an effort to hit the back of your neighbour’s hand, putting them out of the game – and Jedi Training, which involves stabbing people with a foam sword. It was brilliant fun and I lost all the games and it was exactly the right time in the convention to do it.

One of my TolkSoc friends was there and afterwards we went off to Blanket Fort Construction 101, where we met other TolkSoc people and also someone I half-know from the LOTNA meetup group, which is awkward because I only went to LOTNA a few times. We supported the construction of a giant blanket fort, although there was something of a too-many-cooks issue, and then we all hid in the blanket fort and I found out that one of my TolkSoc friends – who I didn’t know very well before Nine Worlds – listens to Paul Shapera. I have never met anyone else who listens to Paul Shapera (independently, anyway – I made the Circumlocutor listen to it once), so that was awesome.

Then we all went to my final event of the con: Playing with Pride: LGBT Relationships in Gaming. This was a filmmaker presenting his footage of queer gamers across America, and some in Europe, talking about their experiences trying to reconcile queer culture with geek culture. This was…emotional: many of the stories, of rejection and disenfranchisement, were sad, but there were also causes for hope, too, as representation in gaming improves. It was very worth going to, and encapsulated the spirit of Nine Worlds – a lovely note to end the con on.

I didn’t leave straight away: we went for dinner at Bill’s, then sat in the bar playing the card game Man Bites Dog. I was vaguely hoping to go to the Rock Club at the End of the Universe, but I couldn’t get the internet to tell me when the last underground train left Hammersmith, which worried me; so I left around 10pm. And that was the end of Nine Worlds.

It was a brilliant, tiring, wonderful few days, in a place that really feels like a community, among queer geeks. I always felt I could be myself there; I had conversations about things I loved; I met interesting people; I never wanted to leave. It’s such a colourful, kind place – inclusive and welcoming – and I’m already planning for next year!