Review: Starbook

Speaking technically, Ben Okri’s Starbook might be the best book I’ve read – probably, will read – this year. Formally, it’s a fairytale: one of its protagonists is a prince who, in time-honoured fashion, begins to question the morality of his father’s kingdom; wanders away into the woods; finds a woman he thinks is a goddess; loses her and sets out to find her. The other protagonist is the woman herself, a maiden from a tribe of artists, who finds herself the centre of a courtship contest. This simplest of romances is shadowed, though, by a “white wind” blowing through the kingdom, blowing away its history and its culture and its memory. The white wind, of course, is slavery; the kingdom is the African continent.

Despite the simplicity of its plot, and its idealised setting, Starbook is a difficult book. At the sentence level, Okri’s prose has the unselfconscious clarity of fairytale – an unselfconsciousness that often teeters on the edge of naïve risibility:

This is a story my mother began to tell me when I was a child. The rest I gleaned from the book of life among the stars, in which all things are known.

But the cumulative effect of such prose – rhythmic, oral, seemingly straightforward – is quite different. It’s a prose characterised by repetition, by echoes, by allusion; it develops thereby a quality of density, a way of deploying imagery, that I’d usually associate with poetry. In fact, I found that the most rewarding way to read Starbook was as poetry: it demands an attention that’s at once sustained – you have to focus on every single word – and adaptable. That is, though it’s a speculative text, in the sense that there is magic and ritual and mysticism, it’s not meant to be read as you would read a traditional SFF novel, hunting for clues about how the world works. To attempt to form a rational, consistent schema for Okri’s imagined kingdom is to miss the point: in Starbook, everything is imagery; yet fixating on what any particular image means is to miss the totality of the novel. This Guardian review compares Starbook to the work of William Blake, and I think that’s a good comparison: both writers use very striking, simple imagery to complex effect.

In other words, Starbook forced me into a different mode of reading, and that was something that enriched everything I did while I was reading it, even when the covers of the book were closed. It changed my life for a little while, and that’s something that happens astonishingly little for the amount that I read.

That’s not to say, though, that I found Starbook unproblematic. In particular, I was disappointed by its relegation of its female protagonist to an entirely passive narrative role: she is sought out by the prince, she refuses to make a decision on which suitor she’ll accept, she spends much of the novel ill, she is judged by her fellow townsfolk without recognising it or doing anything about it. This is in part a problem of genre: left unexamined, fairytale tends to cast cultural constructs as timeless truths, and the way that Starbook works as a novel puts a lot of weight on a small number of relatively simple basic concepts that are easy to take as timeless truths.

This effect also lies behind Starbook‘s prioritisation of romantic love as the pinnacle of human relationships: the love of the prince and the maiden is one that literally changes worlds – and they seem to have no other meaningful human relationships. My problem with this, really, is that it has little emotional truth; I don’t think this is how anyone in a functioning, healthy romantic relationship really experiences the world, and in such a technically accomplished novel its presentation of romance feels shallow and disappointing.

I want to stress, though, that Starbook is the rare kind of book whose flaws make it more interesting, tell us something about what the it’s trying to achieve; a book to be studied, and mulled over, and re-read. I hope, one day, it becomes a classic of post-colonial literature; it really deserves to.

Review: The Waste Land

The Waste Land is a wondrous and entirely unexpected thing which I acquired for the princely sum of 20p at my local library: a graphic novel retelling of T.S. Eliot’s seminal Modernist poem by Guardian cartoonist Martin Rowson. It seems there are two editions of this gem: issues with Eliot’s estate meant a second edition had to be published – it’s this edition I’m reviewing here – which couldn’t quote any of the original poem; not that this seems to have affected the general parodic quality of the piece.

Anyway. The story, such as it is, follows a hard-boiled noir detective, Chris Marlowe (an escapee from a Raymond Chandler novel, or a seventeenth-century playwright, or both), as he searches for his missing business partner, Mike the Minoan, in Eliot’s Unreal City: London, though a disconnected and fragmented version of it. (“A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,/I had not thought death had undone so many.”)

A Goodreads reviewer, Liam Guilar, suggests that Marlowe’s search for his partner in Waste Land London is a performance of the search for meaning with which befuddled first-time readers approach Eliot’s poem – “the irony being the only coherence the poem has to offer is the reader’s search for it.” This is a brilliant and elegant reading which, frankly, I wish I’d come up with myself. (There are also interesting resonances here with the theme of the Grail quest Eliot threads half-heartedly through the poem.)

So Rowson renders Eliot’s text as place – specifically, as a nightmarish version of London, identified mainly (as it is in the poem) by the River Thames, curling its symbolic, stinking way through the text’s heart. Marlowe is literally a stranger in this city; in the first chapter of the book he’s knocked out and shipped across the Atlantic to London, and we see it through his stranger’s eyes – the caricature grotesquerie of Rowson’s art style rendering it larger than life and half-unrecognisable. As another Goodreads reviewer pointed out, rather less insightfully, “the story seems to jump all over the place.” Well, yes. That disconnection is pretty much the whole point of both texts: Eliot renders it linguistically, as a breakdown of cultural touchstones, a scattergun range of quotations and intertexts that don’t relate to anything, “a heap of broken images” with no shaping connective tissue; Rowson renders it narratively, in a search that doesn’t make sense with a solution that “is no solution” (Guilar again), and spatially, in a London that doesn’t look quite like our London, teetering on the edge of the familiar, and populated by anachronistic historical figures: Queen Elizabeth I in a modern-looking crowd on the banks of the Thames, Joseph Conrad in a London pub.

That spatial rendering is rather Gothic, in the sense that Rowson’s London looks and works a lot like the huge, impossibly rambly castles and country homes in Gothic literature – like Gormenghast and Manderley and the Navidson house. These Gothic spaces are uncanny: they take the familiar, ordered space of the home and render it unknowable, unmappable, architecturally impossible. The Gothic as a mode is often associated with the bourgeoisie, but here Rowson’s making a connection with Modernism too; a connection that’s always been latent, because if the Gothic disturbs the rational space of the home then it also, simultaneously, disrupts the rationalism of the Word – the Western Christian construct of the written word as holy, always true, a perfect window into the thoughts of men. The Gothic, characterised by linguistic excess (there’s a reason all those eighteenth-century moralists were appalled by the idea of young ladies reading The Mysteries of Udolpho), by sentence structures that you can get lost in just as you get lost in the corridors of the castles they describe, conceals and reveals the void at the heart of all things, especially at the heart of Western rationalism. And that’s something Eliot’s Waste Land, not to mention Modernism at large, is also urgently concerned with: “the centre cannot hold”, as Yeats wrote just three years before Eliot published The Waste Land; Western morality and thought has become a haunted house, the shared cultural and religious touchstones we used to have in common dissolved and vanished. “I can connect/Nothing with nothing.”

Why is this important? What does it add to our understanding of The Waste Land?

Something which I do find suggestive about Rowson’s treatment of the poem – which links back to Guilar’s point above about the search for coherency in Eliot’s poem constituting the only coherency the poem possesses or can offer – is that, for readers familiar with the original, it becomes a way to navigate Rowson’s text; we decode Marlowe’s search for Mike the Minoan by spotting the references to the poem, a self-reflexive circle which points out the essential meaninglessness of critical approaches to The Waste Land. The poem by its very form denies meaning, even obfuscates it deliberately; that’s ultimately what Rowson’s parodic treatment brings us to realise.

I still love Eliot’s poem, and you get the sense that despite his mockery Rowson does too. His graphic novel treats it as the cultural touchstone it (ironically) is nowadays, and yet it also uncovers and deflates the nihilism that lies behind its artistic vision (and, by extension, the artistic vision of much of today’s literary establishment). It seems sort of pointless to write anything else about The Waste Land – Rowson’s said everything there is to say. Which is good value, for 20p.

Top Ten Classics

  1. Our Mutual Friend – Charles Dickens. This was my first Dickens, and so it retains a special place in my heart. It’s sprawling, melodramatic, often sentimental, sometimes angry, and altogether wonderful. And it features one of Dickens’ most spirited heroines: Lizzie Hexam.
  2. Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen. I also love Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, but Pride and Prejudice takes the crown because of Elizabeth’s spirit, and because Jane and Bingley are simply charming.
  3. Titus Groan – Mervyn Peake. This is a remarkable novel that smushes together Dickensian caricature and Gothic menace. Threatening, ponderous, hypnotic.
  4. Frankenstein – Mary Shelley. Every politician should read this. It’s a stark warning about the consequences of social isolation, the folly of oppression, and the perils of hubris.
  5. Paradise Lost – John Milton. Milton’s verse is a revelation (hah): resonant, spirited and grand, and surprisingly accessible to a modern reader.
  6. The Mysteries of Udolpho – Ann Radcliffe. Much like Titus Groan, this is a novel that draws you into its melodramatic world and won’t let go: a lush and richly described work full of foreshadowings and pathetic fallacies and moustache-twirling villains.
  7. Evelina – Fanny Burney. Burney was a sort of proto-Jane Austen, and her first novel is her best: an epistolary tale of a young woman in London for the first time, it combines social comedy with, um, high melodrama. (There is definitely a theme to this post.)
  8. The Tempest – William Shakespeare. My favourite Shakespeare play varies wildly depending on the version I’ve seen most recently. But The Tempest is definitely up there for its elegiac tone, and the way its action takes place in strange boundary states, between the sea and the land, between the city and the wilderness, between life and death.
  9. Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad. I’ve only read this once, at university: but I loved the lush menace of Conrad’s writing, the gathering sense of dread as we advance along the Congo.
  10. Morte Darthur – Thomas Malory. I’m a sucker for Arthurian stories, and though Malory’s Arthurian cycle was by no means the first version of the Once and Future King’s story (or the best), it’s certainly been one of the most influential on Western literature.

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

Review: Daughter of Smoke and Bone

This review contains spoilers.

The protagonist of Daughter of Smoke and Bone is Karou, a young woman living in Prague, studying art and running esoteric errands for Brimstone, a shady underworld-type character who also happens to be part-human, part-bull. Brimstone’s the only parent Karou’s ever known, alongside his two assistants, who are also part-human, part-animal.

In Brimstone’s workshop (which is not quite of this world: its front door opens onto more than one place) is a door Karou’s never been allowed to pass. When she finally gets a chance to sneak through, she finds a caged city, almost Lovecraftian in its alienness, full of people like Brimstone: chimera.

And then Akiva appears while she’s running an errand: an impossibly handsome man who can fly, an angel who tries to kill Karou for reasons she’s unsure of.

Turns out the seraphim and the chimera are locked in an endless, ageless war, and have been for millennia, after the chimera rose up against oppressors who saw in them only animals. Karou (and here be major spoilers) is, all unknowingly, one of the chimera, reincarnated after being executed for loving Akiva, her enemy, and raised in the human world by Brimstone to keep her safe.

I struggled with thinking about Daughter of Smoke and Bone; it’s slippery, and defies simple readings. It’s tempting to look only at its paranormal romance elements, its tragic, brooding hero who has more than a whiff of the Edward Cullen about him, and read it as the kind of YA fantasy which transmutes the heady emotion of teenagerhood and makes it objectively as earth-shattering as it feels – so that our two young lovers (I think we have to ignore the fact that Akiva must be at least twice as old as the reincarnated Karou, lest we become too cynical) are literally a star-crossed Romeo and Juliet, separated by thousands of years of enmity.

And the book’s fantastic elements do work in a way that supports this reading: specifically, in the way that the novel is split neatly into two parts, one set in Prague following Karou’s present day life and one in the world behind Brimstone’s door (which is properly called Eretz, but which Karou rather more interestingly dubs Elsewhere), exploring her past life. It’s a structure that seems to reinforce the idea of fantasy as a mirror to the real world, one in which repressed or invisible forces (viz., teenage lust and confusion) get free rein.

But. That’s actually too reductive a reading. Taylor’s setting is too strange and vivid, the horrors of the war she describes not even close to adequately contained by the love story it foregrounds. Elsewhere reminds me very strongly of (strangely enough) William Blake’s work: the militant joylessness of the seraphim and the contrasting joyful physicality and grace of the supposedly demonic chimera; the sense of the nigh-apocalyptic age of this war; above all, the saturated symbolic colour of it, the way everything feels significant and vibrant and strange. Elsewhere isn’t a place that lives, really; it’s a place that is. You can’t imagine living there; it exists as a way to tell stories. And yet, like Blake’s work, the moral ambiguity here is nigh-untangleable. The seraphim are oppressors, but the chimera are too, in their own way. What we end up with is a war so vast and terrible that it is literally unspeakable, un-containable, overflowing the narrow bounds of psychological fantasy.

It feels vaguely ridiculous to be comparing Daughter of Smoke and Bone to Blake’s work; not because Laini Taylor is a bad writer, but because Blake was a visionary of such genius that to compare almost anything to him is practically a category error. But I think that Blake’s subversion, particularly his religious subversion (see, for instance, “Holy Thursday” from Songs of Experience), is important to Daughter of Smoke and Bone: I think what Taylor is doing here is rethinking monstrosity.

Let’s say: Daughter of Smoke and Bone is not in fact a romance, at least not primarily. Karou’s family – Brimstone and his assistants – and her female friend Zuzana are at least as important to her (refreshingly) as Akiva is. Daughter of Smoke and Bone is the story of Karou’s finding out who she is; who her family and friends are; what she means. The question Taylor’s asking is: what happens if you find out you’re a monster?

When Karou fights angels above the streets of Prague, she’s aware of how the watching public will react. She knows that she looks like the bad guy in this story, no matter that the angels are trying to kill her. The chimera are devils – given that name by the seraphim, and worse besides. What do you do if you find out you are Other, that you are coded as monstrous by nature?

Going further: this is a story about oppression; about a society that has divided itself so completely, through such deliberate, sustained mutual incomprehension, that all it can do is fight. It’s also a story that destabilises our expectations, shows up the essentially sterile nature of the Biblical good/evil binary, the toxicity of coding an entire group of people as monstrously Other. If we’re rooting for anyone in this war, we’re rooting for the chimera, because of Karou and her identification with them.

Elsewhere, then, is sterile and static. It cannot change by itself; which is why Karou’s being raised outside that world is important. Her name means (so we’re told) “hope”; she is, potentially, an agent of change, a way to break the stalemate.

There are two further books in the series, where I suspect we find out what becomes of Elsewhere. I’m not sure, yet, if I’ll read them: I found Daughter of Smoke and Bone OK, but it doesn’t quite deliver on the shivering horror of its barren, warring world. Still: I think there are some great ideas here, if you can read around Akiva’s brooding.

Review: The King

the-kingOK. So I think The King is working to produce a very specific and quite interesting literary effect, and I think that work and that effect is worthwhile and important. I just didn’t enjoy it very much.

This is the story of the modernisation of Persia – modern-day Iran. Its central character is Shah Naser, a weak and unpredictable ruler whose ideologies are rooted in old ideas of the glories of Persia, smashing its enemies, kings exalted, diamonds uncounted, etc. But the world around him is changing; the telegraph and the railway are coming; news from the West is reaching the Persian people. Soon, he’s embattled by popular dissent, European politics and the march of modernisation.

The usual reviewerly disclaimers apply here: I’m white, I’m British, I know next to nothing about Iran’s history, and I am very happy to hear other opinions.

With that in mind, I think the most interesting thing about The King is how it sites its conflict between tradition and modernity in its style, which is simple, domestic in its single-minded focus on the shah, descriptive rather than demonstrative; it reads, in fact, much like a fairytale. That style very deliberately clashes with the complex international politics it needs to describe; the world of the telegraph and the railway sits within it uneasily, just as the shah has difficulties fitting a changing world with all its disparate forces, its rising democracies, into a worldview in which the king is the only person who really matters.

But Abdolah’s project isn’t really about consigning an unenlightened Shah Naser to irrelevancy; that’s far too simplistic a reading. As the introductory note to the novel attests, The King is really a nationalistic endeavour:

[The Persian poet] Ferdowsi created the hero Rostam. He had Rostam live for about nine hundred years, thereby rescuing the nation’s lost heritage from oblivion.

The teller of this story is following in that poet’s footsteps.

Abdolah’s Shah Naser is as temporally unfixed as his description of Rostam: while the shah is based on the real-life Naser al-Din Shah Qajar, other real-life references in the novel seem to suggest a reign of about a century. This disjunction, linked so explicitly to a key Persian poet, effectively reclaims a particular historical moment as specifically Iranian, despite the European pressures that are so often presented as the dominant narrative, especially in recent history.

I’m veering into territory I know little about here, so I’m actually going to stop. I didn’t enjoy reading The King all that much (which is quite possibly a Western bias rather than anything actually wrong with the book), but I have quite enjoyed thinking about it.

Top Ten Romances in Books

  1. Beren/Luthien – The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien. There are so many things wrong with this romance (the age difference, the fact that Luthien gives up literally everything because Beren is such a manly Man, the codependency) but, ugh, it is my fave and will continue to be unto the ending of the world.
  2. Rosemary/Sissix – The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, Becky Chambers. It’s always heartwarming to see characters navigating something other than a conventional hetero monogamous relationship, and Chambers does it with such good humour.
  3. Alana/Marko – Saga, Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. I love that this is already an established relationship by the time the story starts. I think Saga is doing character work around Being In A Relationship which I don’t see very often in genre, and Alana and Marko feel like a properly strong couple.
  4. Axl/Beatrice – The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro. Another long-established couple, looking back (or trying to) over their lives together. Again, their relationship just feels strong because of, not despite, the shadows that beset it.
  5. Holly Sykes/Hugo Lamb – The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell. From a life-long marriage to a one-night stand. I don’t think I’ll ever stop shipping these two: I really, really hope there’s a fanfic somewhere in which Hugo doesn’t go off to become a soul-sucking immortal.
  6. Beatrice/Benedick – Much Ado About Nothing, William Shakespeare. Beatrice and Benedick have such chemistry: Beatrice is one of Shakespeare’s great female characters, gutsy and witty, and Benedick is perfect as her foil.
  7. Agniezka/the Dragon – Uprooted, Naomi Novik. Again: yes, my fave is problematic. But I love that Agniezka doesn’t even think of pining for the Dragon when she’s away; she just gets on with her life.
  8. Glenda/Nutt – Unseen Academicals, Terry Pratchett. I just think these two are adorable. Nutt is awkward and geeky and also an orc and Glenda is pragmatic and only very secretly romantic and their romance is quiet but true.
  9. Callanish/North – The Gracekeepers, Kirsty Logan. I just finished this book, and admittedly it is not a fantastic read, but one thing I do like about it is that it makes absolutely no fanfare about the fact that Callanish and North are both women. It doesn’t even bother making it an issue.
  10. Eugene Wrayburn/Lizzie Hexam – Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens. Lizzie is, unlike so many of her Dickensian leading-lady counterparts, sort of a badass. She drags her love interest out of a river after he’s attacked and carries him to the nearest inn. Of course, she could only do that because she is working class (I cannot see Bella Wilfer even contemplating rescuing John from any body of water), but it’s still fantastic.

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

Top Ten Horror Novels


  1. House of Leaves – Mark Z. Danielewski. A labyrinthine work which never quite seems to give up all of its secrets: it engulfs you as you read it, shadowing your safety, and it’s a must for any horror fan.
  2. Night Film – Marisha Pessl. This reminds me in many ways of House of Leaves: like Danielewski, it refuses to give up its secrets all at once, and it does some playing with textual sources, adding mocked-up website pages and police forms to the main narrative. But it also has a spooky bagginess all its own.
  3. Frankenstein – Mary Shelley. “Is Frankenstein a horror novel?” Well, it has scientific experiments gone ‘orribly wrong, Arctic wastes filled with unknown and shadowy shapes, and wedding-night murders, so I’m going to go with “yes”. It’s intelligent horror, too, horror with a social conscience, and what more can you ask for really.
  4. Titus Groan – Mervyn Peake. Set in the vast and rambling and ever-changing castle of Gormenghast, Titus Groan is really a tale of entrapment: entrapment that its inhabitants don’t even quite realise is happening. It’s fantastic.
  5. Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier. A twisted tale of jealousy and patriarchy and obsession.
  6. The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes – Neil Gaiman. To be honest, you could read this dark fantasy for its art alone: the darkness of a suburban house is rendered with the same lavish, nightmarish hyperreality as the vistas of Hell.
  7. The Mysteries of Udolpho – Ann Radcliffe. A Regency Gothic novel, and one much sneered at by critics who have in many cases never read it. I always call it “hypnotic”: lush and dreamy prose that carries you, all unknowing, into nightmare, and you don’t realise until it’s too late.
  8. The Haunter of the Dark – H.P. Lovecraft. A warning: Lovecraft is a fucking racist, there’s simply no other way to describe him, and there’s a whole debate that can be had as to whether you can excuse some of his racism as being a product of its time (no) and whether his racism means we should stop reading him (also, probably, no). But he really has a monopoly on the whole “cosmic horror” thing, and without him today’s SFF scene just wouldn’t look the same.
  9. Pale Fire – Vladimir Nabokov. I might be stretching the definition of “horror” here, but Pale Fire is definitely a book imbued with the horrific. An academic writes a commentary on a long narrative poem by someone who has recently died; but his commentary begins to spiral out of control, revealing some dark truths.
  10. The Chimes – Charles Dickens. The Chimes has goblins living in church bells. It is seriously fucked up and weird in a quintessentially Dickensian sort of way.

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

Review: Midnight Never Come

“The Queen takes great delight in fashion, both for herself and those around her.”

Marie Brennan

This review contains spoilers.

Midnight Never ComeMidnight Never Come, the first novel in Marie Brennan’s Other Series (Brennan is currently in vogue, or what passes for it in SFF circles, for her Natural History of Dragons series), is a historical fantasy novel which sees Queen Elizabeth I making a pact with Invidiana, a faerie queene who proceeds to prop up Elizabeth’s power through various nefarious means which also happen to serve her own interests. The novel’s protagonist, Lady Lune, a disgraced courtier at Invidiana’s Onyx Court, is sent, as a Last Chance at Redemption, to spy on the mortal court, while Michael Deven, a mortal gentleman at Elizabeth’s court, investigates the “hidden player” (Invidiana, though he doesn’t know it) in English politics which is making power relations go a bit skiffy.

Unlike a lot of historical fiction, Midnight Never Come does manage to pin down not only period detail but period preoccupations, the kinds of discourse and ways of seeing the world that were flying around in the later years of Elizabeth’s reign. Midnight Never Come, like many authentically Elizabethan texts, plays extensively with various forms of artifice, with surfaces and symbols and disguises: Lady Lune disguising herself as a mortal woman, the title’s reference to Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus, the endlessly mirrored and highly decorated surfaces of the Onyx Court, the debts Deven runs up trying to dress the part of court gentleman. (See also the novel’s other obvious intertext, Spenser’s magisterial Faerie Queene, which asks the reader to thread a treacherous path through a land which is both allegorical and fictional, both itself and something else.) The courts of both of Brennan’s queens are places where the excessive, overweening praise of courtiers (“I have achieved that which most men hardly dream of – to stand, however briefly, in your Grace’s radiant presence”) acts as a shared fantasy, a matter of form which is both true and false: “She [Elizabeth] knows exactly what our praise is worth…By our words, we make her larger than life. And that serves her purposes very well.” I appreciated Brennan’s understanding of that quite subtle point; in that respect at least, Midnight Never Come felt like it was in conversation with authentically Elizabethan pieces like Sidney’s sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella, perhaps the apotheosis of the literature of artifice.

Unfortunately, I don’t feel that Brennan takes this interest in surfaces, in form, in artifice, far enough. Where her Elizabethan intertexts are complex and difficult things, slipping between surface and depth, confusing form and function, medium and message, Midnight Never Come has this depressingly modern (and unoriginal) drive towards duality, towards black-and-white, constantly reaching for an underlying “reality”. There’s a thudding literalness to her As-Above-So-Below conception of the two courts: the Onyx Court is a shadow of the mortal one, with Invidiana as Elizabeth’s dark double. The fairy court, essentially, literalises the symbolism of the mortal court, because, ultimately, that’s what fairies are: literalised metaphors for natural forces, for important places, for social concepts like monarchy. The novel seems to be asking: what would Elizabeth’s court look like if all the things her courtiers said about her were really true? Which, one can’t help but feel, misses the point somewhat: for Elizabeth’s contemporaries, the praise of the court was really true; and it also really wasn’t. It’s here that Brennan’s research stops informing the ideological basis of the text, with the result that the novel fails pretty comprehensively to engage meaningfully with questions of symbol and reality, as when Deven, finding that his beloved Anne Montrose is actually Lady Lune, a fairy, in disguise, decides that he must then have loved Lune all along, because, I don’t know, love has x-ray vision or something. It feels like a cop-out, a dodge, an avoidance of the possibilities of superficiality.

I realise that I may be holding the novel to slightly unfair standards, since The Faerie Queene and Astrophil and Stella and Doctor Faustus are all masterpieces (surviving 400 years of history will do that to you) and not alternate history fantasy novels, but Brennan’s implicit namechecking of these works inevitably brings up the comparison, possibly making the novel seem less than it actually is.

But I do have one legitimate bone to pick with the novel, which is is troubling coding of artifice and femininity. Its constant search for truth, the Real behind the Symbol, inevitably constructs artifice as Bad; when we read about Queen Elizabeth’s much maligned self-image, the make-up she uses to maintain the myth of the everlastingly young Virgin Queen, we’re supposed to feel pity, I think, to see her as shallow, trapped in her own image, disguising her true self; we almost never read it as her own courtiers would have done, as an image that is a source of power, a shared fantasy that is both true and false at the same time. Similarly, we are supposed to pity Invidiana for trying to hide the curse that makes her Old and Ugly, neatly illustrating the double standards with which Western society treats women: being Old and Ugly is bad, a punishment, but hiding that you are Old and Ugly is also bad and pathetic. What’s a woman to do?

It also turns out, to add insult to injury, that essentially all the problems in the book are caused by Invidiana’s turning away from her True Love, a man and a mortal (and thus the Real to the faerie queene’s Symbol). And the damage that she has done can only be undone when Lune makes an alliance with, oh yes, a man and a mortal. Brennan’s women, although they are queens, are also artificial, unstable things, challenging to an order built upon truth and simplicity; her men are straightforward, true, just, restorers of that social order.

It feels, to conclude, like Midnight Never Come was on its way to something interesting, but gave up halfway there and decided to do what everyone else was doing. It feels like a waste of research and of an excellent premise; like so many things, it needed just a little more, to become what it could have been.

Top Ten Book Club Books

“Solitude is the playfield of Satan.”

Vladimir Nabokov

  1. The Library of Unrequited Love – Sophie Divry. A book that’s accessible and short, yet has plenty of room for alternative readings – I can imagine some very fruitful and interesting discussions coming out of a group read of this.
  2. Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel. A gentle book, this one, despite its post-apocalyptic subject matter, and one that’s unusual without being scarily so. Again, I can imagine that different people will take very different things away from it.
  3. Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell. This one’s a little trickier, I think: I could imagine a book club discussion of this turning into a weighing-up of the relative merits of each section without actually engaging with the meanings of the text, but in the right book club I think it would do well.
  4. Persuasion – Jane Austen. A frequently overlooked classic of Austen’s; running it as a book club read would introduce it to a larger audience, as well as hopefully generating conversations about romance and feminism.
  5. Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier. A slightly spooky one, and a Gothic generator of meanings, and seriously who wouldn’t like this book.
  6. The Ocean at the End of the Lane – Neil Gaiman. As with Divry’s novel, there’s plenty of narratorial uncertainty to kick off a discussion with, and enough instability to the story to contain myriads of possible meanings.
  7. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. It’s a novel of many voices, so it seems appropriate that it should be discussed by many voices too. (That’s cheesy, I know. I also know that it is 9:46pm and I want to go to bed.)
  8. The Tempest – William Shakespeare. I think people tend to have very different responses to Shakespeare, and those responses are almost always worth exploring. He’s a very versatile playwright in that respect.
  9. House of Leaves – Mark Z. Danielewski. I wasn’t sure whether to include this one; you’d need a very specific book club indeed to tackle it. But it feels like such a personal book – in that how you read it is almost certainly grounded in personal circumstance – and such a tricky one to tackle all alone that I think a shared reading experience would just be fantastic.
  10. Pale Fire – Vladimir Nabokov. On a similar note to #9: it’s not the most accessible of novels by a long stretch, but you’d get a lot out of it.

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

Top Ten Books I’d Give as Gifts

“September read often, and liked it best when words did not pretend to be simple, but put on their full armor and rode out with colors flying.”

Catherynne Valente

…or, you know, just press into someone’s hands and run off cackling.

  1. A Novel Bookstore – Laurence Cosse. It’s a lovely, atmospheric, gentle book about books, and book-love, and how reading can save us, and it’s a contemporary with wide appeal. Plus, people are unlikely to have run across it before as it’s a translation (from the French).
  2. Jack Glass – Adam Roberts. Murderers and locked room mysteries IN SPACE! I can imagine some people who wouldn’t like this, but NOT THAT MANY.
  3. Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell. I think this is pretty much self-explanatory. It’s brilliant, moving fiction that’s also very accessible (well, barring the long stretch of dialect in the middle, which admittedly takes some getting used to), and there’s a genre in there for everyone.
  4. Collected Poems 1909-1962 – T.S. Eliot. I just think the brown-paper Faber edition is beautiful, with its high-quality creamy pages, and Eliot is a classic (if not the easiest of poets to read).
  5. Going Postal – Terry Pratchett. Or, you know, any of the pre-Snuff Discworld books: they are funny and humane and clever and there’s a whole world waiting to be discovered there and I am literally insanely jealous of anyone who gets to discover them for the first time.
  6. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making – Catherynne M. Valente. Everyone should read this book: it is just such a wonderful, original fairytale, written in luminous, beautiful prose, casting sharp shadows against marshmallow brightness.
  7. Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier. Another classic, hypnotic, disturbing and involving, an apparently realist novel with a darker undertone.
  8. Temeraire – Naomi Novik. A solid fantasy novel, exactly the kind of thing you want to give as a gift: well-characterised, carefully period-specific without being dull, full of adorable baby dragon, and not too weird.
  9. The Gormenghast Trilogy – Mervyn Peake. You can get some beautiful editions of Peake’s work, and they’d make great gifts to the right person – heady, all-encompassing and intensely compelling Gothic fiction.
  10. Our Mutual Friend – Charles Dickens. As we all know, a good Dickens novel makes a great gift, and Our Mutual Friend is, I think, his best, for its anger, its humour, its sentimentality and the careful links it weaves between all its characters.

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