Review: Harrow the Ninth

Harrow the NinthAbigail Nussbaum rather damningly describes Tamsyn Muir’s Harrow the Ninth – sequel to Muir’s massively popular lesbian-necromancer debut Gideon the Ninth – as “a glib work that never entirely convinces you of its characters’ humanity”. It’s easy to see why: despite Harrow‘s much-remarked-upon structural fireworks, there’s a kind of glittering superficiality to it that’s somehow reinforced by the batshit complexity of its plot.

Following the events of Gideon the Ninth, in which Harrowhark Nonagesimus, the last scion of a crumbling House of necromancers, and her acerbic cavalier (basically: swordsperson) Gideon Nav, underwent a series of trials designed by the godlike Emperor of Muir’s world for the purpose of selecting a new Lyctor (a sort of superpowered bodyguard-cum-companion-cum-general), Harrow finds herself in the company of the Emperor and his older Lyctors. She’s supposed to be in training to fight against the enormous Resurrection Beasts, impossibly destructive beings that are essentially byproducts of necromancy; but she’s dangerously hampered by the fact that, unlike the other Lyctors, she’s unable to access the skills and power of her cavalier. Her memory of the events of Gideon the Ninth is also drastically different to what we know to have happened in that book, and, most devastatingly of all, she appears to have forgotten Gideon entirely. The bulk of the novel is dedicated to unfolding these mysteries – or, rather, to Harrow’s attempts to survive long enough to do so.

Let’s be honest: this is very clearly a novel – a series – whose origins lie in a very particular Internet culture. Before embarking on her professional career, Muir wrote Homestuck fanfiction; her Tumblr blog from that period is still accessible. As a result, the Locked Tomb series feels pretty much tailored to the SFF zeitgeist. Its central conceit – star-crossed lesbian necromancers IN SPACE! – springs recognisably from the recent focus on the representation of marginalised identities in genre; a focus that, according to YouTuber Sarah Z, was particularly important in Tumblr culture. In short, queer readers want to see queer characters perform the same sort of heroics that cishet characters get to; Muir’s books let them do that.

The intensity of Gideon and Harrow’s relationship also comes, I’d say, from fanfiction and from shipping culture; as does the byzantine lengths Muir goes to in order to demonstrate the strength of their bond (Harrow, it turns out, has deliberately forgotten Gideon in an attempt to keep her alive). The way Muir handles the complexity of her plot here, doling out answers bit by bit, reminds me more of a sprawling, lore-heavy media property like Doctor Who than of any traditional novel; it feels practically designed to fuel fan speculation (incidentally, or perhaps not, the third novel in the series, Alecto the Ninth, is due out in 2022).

This might all seem painfully obvious. But my point is not that these influences exist – Muir puts honest-to-goodness Internet memes in her novel, for gods’ sake – it’s that queer representation is the entirety of what the books are doing. The main reason for their existence is so that queer readers can see themselves and their necessarily-dramatic relationships in a speculative-fictional setting. That’s where the superficiality comes from: these are novels that are just completely unapologetic about their queerness, their campiness. They’re all aesthetic.

Mind, I’m not saying this is a bad thing – not entirely. There’s still I think relatively little work in the mainstream SFF sphere that ‘s revelling quite so obviously in its queer aesthetic, and even less that focuses to this extent on a queer couple. I’m not convinced that Harrow the Ninth should be on the Best Novel Hugo ballot this year: as a work in itself it stands alone poorly, and I definitely think it’s a stretch to call a novel that’s all surface the best of the year. But I would be lying if I claimed to be immune to the allure of Lesbian Necromancers In Space!! and the tortured intensity of Gideon and Harrow’s relationship. I’ll be reading Alecto the Ninth for sure.

Review: The Unspoken Name

The Unspoken NameA.K. Larkwood’s debut novel The Unspoken Name has gained some moderate attention in genre circles this year, despite reviews that tend towards the mixed: Larkwood’s up for the Astounding Award for Best New Writer, and her novel seems to have had a fair publicity effort behind it. It’s being talked about, is what I’m saying. What’s interesting is that nobody seems to be talking about it as YA, when it shares a lot of DNA – in terms of theme and approach – with novels like Kristin Cashore’s undoubtedly YA Graceling series.

Our teenage protagonist, Csorwe, has lived all her life knowing when it will end: on her fourteenth birthday, when she’ll be sent to the sanctuary of the Unspoken God, to die as his Chosen Bride. However, on the very threshold of his sanctuary, she’s offered a way out: to become an apprentice to the wizard Belthandros Sethennai, and to help him find the Reliquary of Pentravesse, an object of great power that he’s been hunting for a while.

This opening sets us up to expect a certain type of novel: a straightforward quest narrative, perhaps, with large but surmountable obstacles along the way, and a clear character arc that sees Csorwe come into her own. But part of what Larkwood’s doing here is about undercutting such expectations; and instead of a traditional, coherent quest structure, we get something that’s much more episodic and bitty. The narrative makes years-long time jumps into Csorwe’s future, moves from setting to setting just when we’ve started getting comfortable; if this stop-start structure didn’t so neatly underscore Csorwe’s actual character journey, about which more in a minute, I’d say Larkwood was having trouble knowing where to start her novel, as many novice writers do. But our narrative expectations are undermined in other ways too. The Reliquary of Pentravesse turns out to be a bit of a red herring, in terms of what the narrative’s actually interested in; Belthandros Sethennai is no kindly Gandalf, but instead a self-involved and somewhat manipulative employer.

This narrative hesitancy – the way it starts down paths that then prove to be red herrings – is why I’m tempted to read the novel as YA: it mirrors Csorwe’s own stops and starts as she tries to figure out who she is, independent of the various adults in her life trying to mould her into a specific image – the submissive sacrificial bride of the Unspoken God; the brutal, efficient mercenary Sethennai would like her to be. The novel as a whole, then, speaks to typical YA concerns about how to function in society independently of what your parents (or parental figures) want for you; how to define yourself in the face of perhaps-oppressive social expectations. I mentioned Kristin Cashore’s Graceling novels above: in The Unspoken Name Larkwood seems to be interested in similar themes of overcoming specifically generational trauma – the kind of trauma you might experience if you were expected to die submissively at fourteen – and of working through the realisation that the conditions you were raised in were abusive and dysfunctional.

It’s relevant here that The Unspoken Name is an unapologetically queer book: Csorwe is a lesbian, and most of the characters fall somewhere under the LGBTQIA+ umbrella. Although this queerness is in Larkwood’s world unremarkable (this is no tale of queer tragedy), I’d say it absolutely adds a new dimension to Csorwe’s journey. Many, many queer people must as they grow up come to terms with unsupportive or downright abusive families of origin, and have to discover who they are on their own, building new found families that better reflect who they want to be and how they want to relate to the world. The Unspoken Name is not about queerness, but it reflects queer concerns in a relatable way that ties into the book’s larger themes of self-discovery and self-invention.

So: is The Unspoken Name YA, then? Lots of novels do examine the process of growing up and coming into oneself without necessarily being “for” the young people going through that process – James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is the classic example, but Guy Gavriel Kay’s Children of Earth and Sky, which I reviewed here last week, also works. These are texts that look at their protagonists’ coming-of-age from a perspective that is not strongly rooted in the teenage experience. Kay’s novel, for instance, has an omniscient narrator who frequently looks into his characters’ future, giving glimpses of how their present choices shape their lives in a way that’s at odds with YA’s emphasis on self-determination. By comparison, the voice of Larkwood’s novel is much closer to Csorwe’s own voice, so we experience her journey of self-discovery along with her. By the same token, though, The Unspoken Name doesn’t offer the kind of hyper-focus on a teenage protagonist that we tend to get in YA. As the Bandersnatch helpfully pointed out, speculative YA novels tend to have broad-brush, recognisable settings without too much sociopolitical complexity – think of the generic medieval fantasy setting of Cashore’s books, of Suzanne Collins’ high-concept, authoritarian Panem, of the high school analogue in PC and Kristin Cast’s Marked. That’s not automatically a bad thing: this broad-brush worldbuilding allows the author really to focus on their protagonist’s struggles without needing to explain what’s going on in the background. Whereas the setting of Larkwood’s novel is one of the things that’s slightly (deliberately) wrong-footing about it: its combination of inter-dimensional travel technology and D&D paladin-style magic insouciantly blends science fiction and fantasy, offering a little resistance to the reader expecting a straightforward romp through a recognisable world. That resistance takes the focus slightly off Csorwe, making us aware of her wider context in a way that YA isn’t always interested in.

It’s possible that this slight resistance is a factor in why The Unspoken Name isn’t being read as YA, despite its distinctively young adult features. Marketing, too, will be playing a huge part in how the novel’s being received: that cover, for instance, says “edgy grimdark fantasy”, not “affirming queer coming of age”. (Of course, if we wanted to be really facetious, we could point out that, since YA is primarily a marketing category, anything that’s not marketed as YA is de facto not YA. But that doesn’t get us very far, so.) On the whole I think this is a shame: I can imagine a young queer teen really enjoying The Unspoken Name, and getting a lot out of it, and a book missing a portion of its audience because of a commercial decision is never ideal. If The Unspoken Name isn’t technically YA, it’s certainly at least YA-adjacent, and a number of the flaws that reviewers have pointed out make a lot more sense in that context. Wherever we choose to place it generically, it’s a promising first novel that’s attempting some interesting things and largely succeeding; it’ll be good to see what Larkwood does next.

Review: Costume Since 1945: Historical Dress from Street Style to Couture

Deirdre Clancy’s Costume Since 1945 is pretty much what it says on the tin: an illustrated history of the key fashions and modes of dress that were prominent throughout the second half of the 20th century. Clancy is a costume designer, and the book’s illustrated not with photographs but with Clancy’s own drawings, miniature people modelling the looks she’s talking about in the text.

It’s an interesting idea – interesting enough to enough people, apparently, that the book is now in its second edition – but I think I wanted clearer images pointing out key silhouettes (silhouettes, as I’ve recently learned, being more important to recreating the feel of historical dress than the actual garments).

I also seem to remember that the text is very iffy when it comes to identities that aren’t white, cishet and abled. There is some treatment of non-Western fashions but it’s not in any way systematic, and Clancy in many cases doesn’t provide the context to make their inclusion meaningful or helpful. There aren’t I think any disabled people represented, and the book also features outdated terminology for trans people (the second edition came out in 2015). I guess it might be useful as a general reference text, but it wasn’t quite as comprehensive or informative as I expected and it wouldn’t be my first choice.

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: Dead Until Dark

I dream of a good comfort read. You know the type: fluffy but not vacuous; unchallenging but not problematic; the kind of thing you can sink into like a warm bath.

Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse series looked like it might fit the bill. It’s certainly long enough, at 13 books and approximately a gazillion novellas and short stories. It’s also popular enough (thanks to the HBO TV adaptation True Blood) that most libraries stock it, although as is always the case in libraries the first volume seems perpetually to be missing. It stars a mystery-solving small-town heroine in a relationship with a vampire; sounds fun, right?


In Dead Until Dark we meet that small-town heroine, the aforementioned Sookie Stackhouse. Sookie considers herself to have a “disability”: she’s telepathic, making it difficult for her to hold down a relationship or a job. (It would have been interesting, I think, for the text to lean more into this angle, constructing telepathy as a neurodivergence that prevents Sookie from functioning fully in our society – but actually her power doesn’t seem to affect her life all that much apart from occasionally expediting a bit of plot.) While working as a waitress at the fictional town of Bon Temps’ most prominent bar Merlotte’s, she meets her vampire love interest Bill, who along with his supernatural fellows has been empowered to come out of the shadows by the development of an artificial substitute for human blood. With TruBlood readily available, the vampires have no need to drink human blood – although they still like to, to some extent. But when women in the town start being ‘orribly murdered, suspicion naturally falls on Bill.

In many ways the novel gave me exactly what I wanted out of it: a spot of light urban fantasy, a realistic world I could see myself living in with a dash of supernatural spice; the consolations of a mystery we know will be solved by the final pages and a romance that’s sure to end happily for now if not ever after. But beneath it all runs a vicious undercurrent of racism.

There are precisely three non-white characters in the quite extensively-peopled Dead Until Dark: a Native American vampire who turns out to be embezzling his also-vampire boss; a Black vampire who Sookie thinks of as trashy because she likes to wear hot pants; and Sam, Merlotte’s short-order cook, who has a “very hard life” because he is both Black and gay. This is all pretty horrible representation, and stereotypical to boot. (I think Sam is also the only queer character in the novel.)

And, look. I get that Bon Temps is in the USA’s deep South, and that overt racism is still absolutely endemic there (and elsewhere); that sundown towns have not gone away. But it’s a little…discombobulating to be told, matter-of-factly, that Black people don’t live in Bon Temps, in a novel published in 2001, as if this is just the way things are and will always be. No acknowledgement of the role Bon Temps’ white inhabitants probably have to play in that, or of the historical circumstances that brought such a situation about. The centuries-old Bill, as I’ve just remembered, was actually a Confederate soldier, and there’s a whole subplot where Sookie gets him to give a talk about his experiences to the town’s historical society, whose members appear to treat a civil war literally fought for the right to continue enslaving Black people as, like, a mild historical curiosity? No wonder Black families don’t want anything to do with this shitty town and its shitty lack of self-examination. Also, just to emphasise that one of the book’s main romantic leads is an unrepentant former Confederate soldier.

Sigh. My search for the perfect comfort read continues.

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: Saga Volume 6

Since I’ve been thinking about worldbuilding this week: what is it that makes the world of Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ comic series Saga so enjoyable? For those not in the know, the series follows Marko and Alana, a star-crossed couple from opposite sides of an intractable, generations-long galactic war, and their attempts to protect their unprecedented mixed-race daughter Hazel. In Volume 6, they stage a daring rescue of Hazel from a Landfallian prison – the people of Landfall being Alana’s people, who believe that Hazel is a Wreather like her father.

The world of Saga is, obviously, plagued with social problems: intolerance, chauvinism, homophobia; there’s a thriving market for assassins and for child sex slaves; there are drug problems and censorship. Put like that, it seems a bleak dystopia. But then there are wonderful things too: rocket-powered trees; eggs the size of planets; cats who can tell when you’re lying. Most of all – and this is going to sound cheesy, but – there are surprising acts of love and kindness. The trans woman who protects Hazel in prison; the assassin who rescues a five-year-old from sex slavery; the friendship and solidarity Marko’s mother finds while incarcerated. That’s what Saga is about, really: the universality of love, the way it can be found in the most unexpected of places; the importance of community and found family.

And the diversity to be found in its pages is an assertion that everybody is worthy of such love. There are multiple brown characters, including Alana herself; there are the gay reporters hiding from bigotry; there’s the aforesaid trans character, Petrichor; and probably others who I’ve forgotten. This commitment to representation is part of what gives the series its riotously inclusive feel. (I will note, though, that this volume’s reveal of Petrichor’s transgender status is a little icky, presenting it as a striptease-like surprise rather than treating it matter-of-factly. It’s a case of bad judgement rather than bad intentions, I think, but the dodgier responses to the book on Goodreads illustrate the harm this kind of thing can cause.)

The other thing about Saga‘s world is that, despite its galactic scope and its wackier science fictional elements, it looks so very much like ours. People hold recognisably corporate jobs and live in recognisably suburban homes; they read trashy news and nurse grudges against their exes. The world of Saga, then, is our world, its wonders and terrors exaggerated by the heightened visual language of the graphic novel. In its representation of identities marginalised by Western culture and its depiction of strange monsters and beautiful creatures, it’s a celebration of the variety of experience our world contains; Vaughan and Staples use it to tell a story about the folly of seeking to eliminate that variety. Life on this planet of ours can be terrifying, and there are monsters aplenty; but there is also love and friendship in unexpected places, standing between us and oblivion.

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: A Choir of Lies

A short way into Alexandra Rowland’s second novel A Choir of Lies (sequel to A Conspiracy of Truths, which I reviewed here a couple of weeks ago), our narrator Ylfing embarks on a linguistic digression:

I thought for a long time about what tongue I wanted to write this in. It had to be something beside the Spraacht [the language of Heyrland, where the novel is set], to add a layer of protection should these pages be found or glimpsed accidentally before I have a chance to burn them myself…here I am writing in the soft flowing lines and curls of Xerecci…The downside of Xerecci is that I’m working in translation, and there’s differences between the Heyrlandtsche and the Xerec ways of looking at the world. Xerecci, you see, has only three grammatical genders: he, she, it.

Ylfing goes on to explain that Heyrlandtsche society recognises six genders, and that although one of the novel’s main characters is neither female, male nor agender, he will nevertheless refer to her using female pronouns throughout, as the closest Xerecci equivalent. It’s an acknowledgement of the social constructedness of gender and the way that language cannot always accurately describe gender; and therefore a little elaboration on the novel’s discussion of the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and what kind of society we live in. Its diegetic awkwardness, though (why does Ylfing need to spend two and a half pages explaining Heyrlandtsche society to himself, especially since he plans to burn those pages later?), is characteristic of how Rowland handles the metafictionality of their novel.

Grieving and depressed after an acrimonious parting from his former master Chant, the itinerant storyteller who’s the protagonist of A Conspiracy of Truths, Ylfing takes a job in the low-lying, canal-filled city of Heyrland advertising a new kind of beautiful yet unpleasantly smelly flower called star-in-the-marsh imported by his wealthy employer, Sterre. Ylfing’s talent for storytelling coupled with his naivete and emotional detachment and Sterre’s greed precipitate an analogue of the 1637 Dutch tulip market bubble. By chance, Ylfing meets another Chant in the city, and her horror at Sterre’s scheme and at Ylfing’s master-Chant’s treatment of him both infuriate Ylfing and eventually spur him to do something about the economic crisis he’s caused.

Ylfing is, as we have seen, notionally writing all this down more or less as it happens; at some point he gives the manuscript to Mistress Chant for reasons we don’t discover until later, and the text is interspersed with her acerbic commentary. This metafictional apparatus does for Ylfing what Chant’s own unreliable narration did for him in A Conspiracy of Truths: it ironises his viewpoint, revealing even this private narrative to be a partly fictional construct designed to shore up his own sense of self. (This is particularly evident when Mistress Chant corrects Ylfing’s account of their conversations.) In other words, it shows us how each of us is, whether we know it or not, engaged in a constant process of storytelling, selecting and arranging our experiences and impressions to create and maintain a narrative about who we are as people.

But if everyone is telling themselves a story about who they are, then where does storytelling end and lying begin? This is the fundamental question that both Ylfing and the novel wrestle with, particularly in light of the events in A Conspiracy of Truths, when Ylfing’s master-Chant’s storytelling skills destroyed a country’s economy and precipitated a civil war. A Choir of Lies is particularly interested in abusive and controlling relationship dynamics, which are of course based on lying and on rewriting other people’s stories about themselves for the abuser’s own gain. So, Chant in A Conspiracy of Truths allows Ylfing to believe he is effectively dead in order to escape Nuryevet; Sterre constantly enforces her view of the world and of morality on Ylfing, erasing his sense of who he is and what he wants to do; and Ylfing’s lover Orfeo tells him lies, or rather a heavily edited truth, about his past and his intentions. What is the difference between these lies, and the lies Ylfing himself tells about stars-in-the-marsh, and the kind of storytelling that encourages positive action in the world, that fosters a sense of community and cohesive identity?

A pertinent and interesting question that speaks to a lot of the anxieties embedded in contemporary society about the role of the storyteller, about advertising, about sexual and emotional abusers in positions of power in a number of industries. The problem with the novel, though, is that the metafictional apparatus that enables all of this discussion about storytelling is clunky and ultimately not very convincing. The passage I quoted at the beginning of this review is just one example of many in which Ylfing or Mistress Chant write something down “for their own reference” that is transparently there only for the reader’s benefit. Why is Mistress Chant writing on the manuscript at all, given the fact that Ylfing’s skipped town and she’ll probably never see him again?

Dammit, I’ll have the last word, even if you aren’t around to see me getting it.

Which is to say: because the story won’t work if she doesn’t.

A more fundamental problem is that Mistress Chant’s commentary doesn’t deepen Ylfing’s characterisation, it flattens it. He becomes whiny, passive and dull, displaying none of the charisma that Rowland claims for his storytelling, and none of the passion for life he possesses in A Conspiracy of Truths. This is partly a result of the fact that we are never encouraged to question Mistress Chant’s reading of his situation, her own self-narrative: she is the voice of reason in the text, and therefore her opinion of Ylfing (which is inevitably coloured by her own conceptions of what Chanting should be) is the one we are offered as “correct”. But what makes her overwriting of Ylfing’s narrative different from Sterre’s? Clearly it is; I am not saying we should read Mistress Chant as a villain. But the text’s failure to address this slipperiness, the fact that Mistress Chant is conceptually just as unreliable a narrator as Ylfing because she is a person, weakens its power considerably.

The rather instrumentalist approach to characterisation that underlies these problems is on display in the setting too. We’re told a couple of times that Heyrland is a fundamentally cooperative society, because during storm season, when the sea threatens to flood the city, every pair of hands is needed to keep the water out. And Ylfing’s eventual solution to the economic crisis he’s created is rooted in community action, creating a win-win situation for those who have lost money and for his employer. But Ylfing never feels like he’s embedded in a cohesive social network; which is another way of saying that, with the exception perhaps of Mistress Chant, the characters around him don’t feel like real people, and the city itself doesn’t feel like a real city. They’re all there to serve the wider point that Rowland is making about storytelling and lies.

I am normally a sucker for a metafictional tale like this one. But that’s because I enjoy the destabilising play such novels make with meaning, textual authority and identity: they ask us to question everything we read, to recognise that there is no such thing as objective truth. That is, I enjoy their complexity. And although A Choir of Lies is not ultimately an irredeemable novel – there is some pleasure in having our suspicions of Chant confirmed – it’s not a complex one either. There are no murky, mysterious currents running below its surface, nothing to complicate or disturb the story Rowland’s determined to tell. Characters do what they do because the plot needs them to do it; the setting is there merely to provide a quaint background for Ylfing’s emotional struggles. It’s all fine. It’s competent. But it is not compelling; and in its failure to compel it fails to communicate the full power and danger of storytelling, of the stories we tell to ourselves and each other.

Review: Blackfish City

This review contains spoilers.

Sam J. Miller’s second novel Blackfish City is a tale about the value of connection in the face of oppressive capitalist systems that seek to keep us apart. The titular city is Qaanaaq, a floating metropolis somewhere in the Arctic Circle, in a future ravaged by climate change. Qaanaaq is run not by humans but by an algorithm making supposedly disinterested decisions that nevertheless seem to benefit the city’s landlord class more than its much larger proletariat. To this socially stratified yet vibrant city comes a mysterious woman accompanied by a killer whale and a polar bear: who is she? Why has she come to Qaanaaq? What is the nature and meaning of her connection with these two iconic apex predators?

The novel is peopled by loners: Soq, a messenger living a hand-to-mouth existence in Qaanaq’s poorest district; Kaev, a bareknuckles fighter afflicted by something like PTSD; Fill, Soq’s sometime lover, a rich gay man with a disease called “the breaks” that’s passed through bodily fluids and causes visions of the experiences of other carriers; and Ankit, a campaign manager for one of the city’s few politicians. The woman with the killer whale – Masaaraq – brings these disparate figures unexpectedly together: they are a family, separated by prejudice; their reunion, though fraught and complex, helps make each of them whole.

The novel’s theme of radical connection goes deeper than that, though. Masaaraq, it turns out, is among the last of a legendary community of people who were bonded to wild animals by experimental nanotech: so what looks like dominance over the natural world actually turns out to be something much more mutual. That same nanotech, brought to Qaanaaq, offers a cure for the breaks that preserves the disease’s empathic potential without its lethal consequences.

Then there’s City Without a Map: a sort of podcast within the world of the novel, narrated by people from all walks of life, telling stories of life in Qaanaaq. Its creator(s) are anonymous; but in bringing together this range of experiences to tell a single story about the city it creates a skein of connection that conceptually links each inhabitant together. In other words it does exactly what Blackfish City itself does – reveals the shared humanity that binds us to each other.

All of this builds up to a moment when Soq is able to seize a lot of property from the shadowy landlords who keep that property empty. It’s not made clear what they’ll do with it, but their frequently-articulated love for Qaanaaq seems to suggest that revolution is in the offing – that they’ll use it to build a kinder and a fairer city for all. In this way the newly reconstituted family, connected by bonds of love, stands against the faceless, invisible hand of the market which pretends to a false objectivity.

If the novel has a fault it is that its bringing together of Masaaraq’s family feels a little too pat, their finding each other again too much of a coincidence to credit. But on the whole it’s a good read that covers a lot of ground thematically; one that balances hope for a transformed future with clear-eyed realism about where our current problems might take us.