Review: In Other Lands

Originally published online, Sarah Rees Brennan’s 2017 novel In Other Lands makes an interesting comparison with Simon Ings’ Hot Head, which I reviewed here last week. Both novels are imperfect, baggy, even flawed; both, though, are extremely genre-savvy, deploying the conventions and tropes of, respectively, portal fantasy and cyberpunk strategically to help us see these textual traditions in a new light. For my money, In Other Lands is more straightforwardly of its genre, rather than transcending it as Hot Head does; nevertheless, it’s still an entertaining and intelligent novel that hit me right in the heartstrings.

Our Protagonist is Elliot, a schoolboy who discovers on a dodgy field trip at the age of 13 that he can see the wall between our world and the titular other lands, a generic medieval fantasyland where dwell elves, dwarves and other creatures. Offered a choice between staying with an indifferent parent in England and joining a school on the other side of the wall that’s dedicated to training up young Border Guards – folk who notionally keep the peace along the border between our world and fantasyland – he chooses the option that all portal fantasy protagonists do, indeed must: he chooses the unknown.

Brennan’s key narrative tactic in the novel is one that will be familiar to readers of Terry Pratchett and his imitators: she interrogates the conventions of portal fantasy through the eyes of a psychologically modern protagonist, asking common-sense questions like “isn’t this magical school essentially training child soldiers?” and “why does everyone need to fight when they could have treaties?” Diverting though Elliot’s sardonicism and precocity are, they’re hardly original; it’s Brennan’s play with the nature of his subjectivity as a fantasy protagonist that makes the novel truly stand out. Because one of her masterstrokes is to transfer real-life high-school dynamics into her fantasy setting: she’s interested in how real teens (and adults) would respond to the kind of child who ends up in YA fantasy novels. With his wide vocabulary, his passion for learning everything he can about the Borderlands and the fantastical world beyond them, and his obvious conviction that he knows everything better than any of the actual adults around him, there is a little Eustace Scrubb about him, as Electra Pritchett points out; but also a little Lyra Silvertongue too, a little September Morning Bell. It’s something of a surprise, then, generically speaking, when his classmates and teachers fail to hang on his every word. (Even Harry Potter had his fans at Hogwarts: “Our new – celebrity.”)

This is because Elliot is an asshole, and he’s an asshole kind of without realising it. We sympathise deeply with him because the fact that he is the protagonist gives us privileged access to his history and his subjectivity: we know that neglectful parenting has left him craving love and attention, but his classmates and teachers don’t. All they see is an annoying, manipulative know-it-all. And if they did know: well: pity is generally not a good foundation on which to build a friendship. Elliot, crucially, does not get a pass for being the protagonist. We all experience ourselves as protagonists of our own lives; that doesn’t mean we can treat those around us as sidekicks and secondary characters. One of the ends Elliot’s manipulation is often targeted at is the brokering of peace treaties with the non-human races in the lands patrolled by the Border Guards – although Brennan clearly thinks he is right to oppose what amounts to institutional chauvinism, she’s also clear that this doesn’t give him the right to disregard the agency of his peers and teachers.

So, first and foremost, In Other Lands is the story of Elliot growing up; of becoming a person who is worthy of respect, kindness and love both romantic and platonic. It’s a hard road, and Brennan is unflinching in depicting that emotional reality: as someone who went through a similar journey of learning-to-be-a-person later in life than usual, I felt Elliot’s profound loneliness, his despair and rage, and also his passion for the world, his belief that things can be better than they are. I was in tears more than once.

It’s not a perfect novel. (Frankly, my favourite works rarely are.) In what is presumably a relic of its original publication circumstances, In Other Lands is divided into four chunky sections, each corresponding to a year of schooling in the Borderlands; there are no smaller subdivisions of content (i.e., chapters), which, given the fact that the narrative shape of the novel is somewhat digressionary and episodic, makes the pacing feel a little wacky. The prose, too, is nothing to write home about: here, too, the text’s internet origins are on show in the ironic juxtaposition of fantasy setting and modern idiom demonstrated in passages like:

“Elliot was trying to teach himself trollish via a two-hundred-year-old book by a man who’d had a traumatic break-up with a troll. This meant a lot of commentary along the lines of “This is how trolls say I love you. FOOTNOTE: BUT THEY DON’T MEAN IT!””

Fun, but it’s been done before. All over Tumblr.

Nineteen years ago, gamer Michael Suileabhain-Wilson defined five Geek Social Fallacies: a set of beliefs about the overriding importance of friendship and unconditional inclusion that, ironically, often lead to geeky social groups being hotbeds of interpersonal drama that are hostile to outsiders and overly tolerant of missing stairs. As awareness of the ways that geek spaces work to exclude marginalised people has become mainstream, Suileabhain-Wilson’s post has gained significant currency in internet discourse, aided perhaps most notably by the inimitable Captain Awkward. With its irreverent, easy humour and its deconstruction of the hero complex that many YA fantasy protagonists operate under – in texts that have often influenced the values of the kind of geek groups Suileabhain-Wilson talks about – In Other Lands feels like a continuation of the conversation. I’d put it with Kristin Cashore’s Graceling series and Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom books as an example of progressive, modern YA that’s realistic about relationships and the travails of growing up – YA I would have been glad to have on my shelf as a teenager.

Review: Hot Head

Simon Ings’ debut novel Hot Head is a puzzling little number, one that to some extent sits outside the conventions of its genre. The story of cybernetically enhanced Malise, a washed-up spacefighter and former hero who’s called upon once again to defend the planet from a self-replicating, all-devouring, asteroid-sized AI mass heading our way, its roots are clearly cyberpunk in nature. But an overlay of Tarot symbolism, a long prologue set in a near-future Italy impoverished by climate change and significant geopolitical upheaval and a sharply characterised heroine (who happens to be Muslim and queer – in a novel published by a white man in 1992!) take it out of straight-up Neuromancer territory into a place that feels much more literary: there’s a sense that Ings is attempting something quite ambitious and complicated.

What that something might be I am not sure: the Tarot symbolism is sufficiently obscure, and the plot sufficiently snarled (lots of running around, mysterious and menacing strangers, uncertain and altered loyalties – all that cyberpunk cynicism) that my grasp on what actually happens in the novel is pretty hazy. It’s clear, at least, that Ings is using the generic trappings of cyberpunk quite deliberately, to think about how the psyche works, how storytelling is embedded right at the root of us psychologically speaking (and that’s all the Tarot is, really – a tool for telling stories about the psyche): he’s writing a full decade after the beginnings of cyberpunk, after all, and eight years after Neuromancer. This kind of self-awareness really appeals to me as a reader. For all its oddities of pacing and narrative, Hot Head has a weight to it, a sort of considered postmodern quality, that made it a pleasingly chewy read: a vintage diamond in the rough.

Review: The Shining Girls

Lauren Beukes first made her name with 2008’s Moxyland and 2010’s Zoo City, highly political novels set in near-future South African cities that are interested in capitalism, social deprivation, the abuse of state and corporate power. Zoo City – the only one of the pair I’ve read – is also suffused with urban energies, the ragged rhythms of the city, and its speculative element lends a note of Gothic excess to the proceedings. It’s an imperfect but dynamic novel, which, it turns out, is my favourite type. So Beukes’ third novel, her breakout The Shining Girls (2013), is…something of a contrast.

Set in Chicago, it revolves around two characters: Kirby Mizrachi, a young woman from the 1990s who survives a horrific murder attempt and dedicates herself to identifying the culprit; and Harper Curtis, her would-be murderer. In the Depression era, Harper finds a seemingly unremarkable House that compels him to travel through the twentieth century, finding and murdering promising women – the titular “shining girls” – and collecting grisly trophies at each of his crime scenes. Can Kirby, working with a world-weary sports journalist, connect seemingly impossible dots to work out what Harper is doing, and stop him?

This is, then, a very different novel to Zoo City: instead of a riotous urban fantasy set in a richly depicted Johannesburg, a meditation of sorts on the nature of guilt and complicity, we have something much more solidly commercial; an SF thriller of the likes of Claire North’s Touch or M.R. Carey’s The Girl with All the Gifts. Which is not to say that there isn’t thematic depth here. Beukes’ key rhetorical move in The Shining Girls is to give each of the women Harper murders a chapter of her own, documenting in tight first-person perspective her hopes, her dreams, her family life (or lack of it), the texture of her existence. Beukes imbues each of these women with life, which of course sharpens our sense of tragedy when each of those lives is snuffed out. But the rude curtailment of each of their stories also makes a wider social point: these women are remarkable, and they could have achieved remarkable things if not for the spectre of male violence. How many other women across the world, across history, have been prevented from leading fulfilling family lives, becoming more fully who they are, making scientific and other breakthroughs, shaping their societies, by men?

It’s striking that, by contrast to the detailed histories of Harper’s victims, Harper himself is relatively underdeveloped. He broke his brother’s legs as a child, sort of but not really by accident; he commits violence casually, to serve his own ends, even before the House draws him into its orbit; he feels entitled to the bodies of women, even when he’s not murdering them. But what drives him, what motivates him, what has turned him into this person? We don’t really know. And that’s the point. Is there not a vast swathe of Western literature – not to mention popular culture – dedicated to examining the psyches of violent men, while their female victims remain unregarded, pitied but never taken seriously as people who once had lives and hopes? And does it ultimately matter why men are violent, when the simple fact of their violence limits the existences of everyone around them? In this novel, it’s the women that matter, that we care about; Harper, by contrast, is a pathetic, petty figure, entirely inglorious.

Beukes’ classic, closed-loop time travel plot underscores this, as the novel’s denouement returns us to scenes we’ve seen before with a satisfying sense of inevitability. Harper murders because he does. There is no real cause, just an endless loop of violence in which he is seemingly trapped – unable to move beyond his compulsion, which fails at every turn to satisfy him. Meanwhile, it’s Kirby who’s able to move on beyond that trap, her implied dynamic future a contrast to Harper’s magically incurred stasis.

If Beukes avoids the temptation to psychoanalyse her serial killer, she also avoids the trap of middle-class white feminism: her shining girls include a Black welder and a transgender showgirl. This is thoughtful work: a well-made, carefully controlled novel that combines a taut thriller plot with thematic and emotional heft. On a personal level, I preferred the messiness of Zoo City; here, it feels like all that resonant messiness has been filed away in favour of technical excellence. Nevertheless, it’s a good book, and a highly readable one.

Review: The Galaxy, and the Ground Within

The last novel in Becky Chambers’ series of loosely-connected novels set in her Wayfarers universe, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within is also, unfortunately, the least accomplished. Structurally, it is what’s known in TV as a bottle episode: six aliens, one of them a minor character from the first Wayfarer novel, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, find themselves trapped by an infrastructure accident at a rest stop on the planet of Gora, a major transport hub. The delay causes tensions within the group for various reasons, but it also gives them a chance to connect and to form unlikely friendships; when the emergency is over, each leaves Gora enriched by their experience.

There’s nothing, I think, intrinsically wrong with the format of the bottle episode: in the context of a TV show it can be a truly excellent thing, giving writers a chance to delve deeply into the psychology of a group and the motivations of each of its characters, as well as slowly ratcheting up tension (the Doctor Who episode Midnight is a masterful example). But it’s a pretty thin plot to hang an entire novel on, and it does require some excellent character work to make up for the relative lack of Things Happening. My main problem with The Galaxy, and the Ground Within is that Chambers seems to mistake cultural exchange for characterisation.

All of the Wayfarers novels have been centrally concerned with issues of representation and inclusion: the galaxy where they’re set is largely a welcoming and diverse place, with many of its public spaces designed to accommodate the very differing access needs of the species that live there. Queerness of all kinds is unremarkable; most characters (with notable exceptions) work comfortably alongside people who are different from them in various respects; the second novel in the series, A Closed and Common Orbit, features some pretty obvious trans themes. How successful the series actually is in tackling issues of social justice is up for debate, but they are undoubtedly there. The Galaxy, and the Ground Within follows up on this conversation by, essentially, having its characters sit around and explain the nuances of their differing cultures to each other.

The chief focus in this exercise is Speaker, a member of a species called the Akaraks whose history is one of colonisation and displacement. None of the other characters know anything substantial about the Akaraks – and what they do know is mostly false and discriminatory – because of that history, which has left them homeless, powerless and without representation in the galactic government. Speaker’s presence on Gora gives her an opportunity to correct the record, at least in a small way, by sharing facts about Akarak culture with the other travellers and pointing out commonplace inaccuracies.

There are two problems with this approach, one of which is a problem of execution and one of which is more foundational. Firstly, and least seriously: this is all very Structural Oppression 101. This is what unconscious bias looks like, this is what casual racism looks like, this is what institutional disenfranchisement looks like…And it’s not done subtly, through character action, through metanarrative, through dialogue; it’s just infodumped into the text, and it…sits there, doing nothing except making the other characters feel good about themselves for having acquired this knowledge.

Secondly, it is…not great to put the marginalised character in the position of having to explain her own marginalisation; to educate those more privileged than she is about her culture. The text does lampshade this, but, again, it doesn’t particularly do anything with the fact that Speaker’s forced to do it at all. We’ve been told over and over again in this series that this is an enlightened and tolerant galaxy: where are the allies in the group on Gora? Why couldn’t Chambers have a more privileged character step in to correct assumptions, to prevent everyone else quizzing Speaker? At one point, Roveg, a wealthy sim designer who’s been exiled from his home planet, does contemplate rescuing her, but instead begins asking his own questions because he is: curious. Oh, great. (I will note here that the Wayfarers universe has a fully-functioning interplanetary Internet analogue which we have seen characters using in previous instalments.)

This all bespeaks a kind of shallowness that characterises the novel as a whole, for me. This is a text about cultural difference and structural oppression that doesn’t have anything coherent to say about those things except “structural oppression is bad and tolerance is good”. It’s a character-focused novel whose characters are largely unremarkable and flat. It’s a novel that means well, but which ultimately fails to grapple with questions about what meaningful allyship looks like. It is, like all of Chambers’ books, a perfectly readable novel: gentle, sweet, unchallenging to Western liberal sensitivities. But it’s a clunky note on which to end a series.

Review: The Future of Another Timeline

Annalee Newitz’s second novel The Future of Another Timeline is a science fiction story about history: history’s malleability in the hands of those with power, and the way that history’s long arc of justice can be reversed.

In a universe where time travel exists and the past can be “edited” – leaving no trace in the memory of anyone but the time traveller who changed it – a group of feminists calling themselves the Daughters of Harriet (after Harriet Tubman, who in this world was elected a US Senator after American women gained the vote in 1869) attempt to combat the efforts of the incel-like followers of moralist and anti-abortionist Anthony Comstock as they strive to bring about a world in which women are little more than breeding stock.

Newitz is careful to make their definition of feminism an inclusive and intersectional one: the ranks of the Daughters of Harriet include trans women, non-binary folk and women of colour. A key plotline sees our point of view character Tess, a woman who lives in a contemporary America where abortion has never been legal, travel back in time to 1893, to the Chicago World’s Fair, to join working-class, free-thinking Middle Eastern belly dancers in working against Comstock in the time when he was alive. This is very much a text that’s interested in collective, grassroots action, in welcoming allies wherever they are to be found.

But it’s interested in the personal, too, as its other main storyline attests. Alongside her work in 1893, Tess is also, illicitly, making a number of visits to the timeline of a nineties teenager named Beth, whose friend Lizzie has become disconcertingly fond of murdering predatory men and whose father casts an abusive shadow over her life. The conditions that Tess finds herself existing in demonstrate the importance of what the Daughters of Harriet are doing, the difference that they stand to make to countless lives.

The metaphors that Newitz is working with, then, are fairly obvious. The Daughters’ “edit war” for history – and thus for the future – is a reflection partly of current movements across Anglo popular culture to reinscribe people with marginalised identities into history – to recover the erased stories of women, LGBT+ people and people of colour – and partly of the left’s fight against the erosion of the progress we have made in recent history. The Future of Another Timeline is partly about reclaiming the narrative, and partly about protecting the successes we’ve made from the people who’d like to destroy them so completely they might never have existed. (See: the proposed overturning of Roe v. Wade in the US, pretty much anything the UK Conservative party has done since 2016, etc., etc.)

It’s a satisfyingly crunchy speculative approach to representing the struggle for women’s rights: one that draws attention to little-remembered (but crucial) movements in US history in a way that’s thematically relevant as well as being a goal in itself; that asks, and leaves open, crucial questions about the role of violence in political action; that’s thoughtful about who gets to be included in stories about feminist uprisings. “Thoughtful” is the operative word here: like Alix E. Harrow’s 2020 historical fantasy The Once and Future Witches, one of the things Newitz is doing in The Future of Another Timeline is creating a new vision of feminism, one that brings everyone along on the journey to emancipation, rather than excluding everyone who isn’t a respectable middle-class white woman.

It’s a refreshingly unusual read: I don’t think I’ve read anything quite like it before, ranging as it does through a multitude of time periods, from the Cretaceous to the far, far future, and switching its focus from the personal to the political and back again within the space of a few chapters or so. But it failed, interestingly, to move me in the way I was moved by The Once and Future Witches; I think because it is so thoughtful, so careful, so academically inclined (Newitz was a science writer before they were a fiction writer), that there’s little space for human messinesses to slip in. Newitz is no prose stylist, either: their writing is competent but rarely elegant. The Future of Another Timeline offers a vision of our past, our present and our future that is, ultimately, hopeful; its trust is in the power of collective political action and allyship between marginalised groups. It’s a good read. But without that human angle, that deep connection with its characters, it’s hard, in the final analysis, to share fully in that trust, that hope.

Review: Windwitch

I’ve been thinking and writing a lot recently about the current drive in SFF for greater diversity of character, setting and narrative, for texts that acknowledge identities beyond the assumed white cishet norm and cultures outside the Western Anglosphere, and how that drive correlates – or not, as the case may be – with the actual quality of the texts that are being produced. Susan Dennard’s Windwitch, I’d argue, is an example of a text where an attempt at diversity has not made up for its other failures.

Windwitch is the sequel to Truthwitch, a fairly standard YA secondary world fantasy novel that was distinguished primarily by the relationship between its two female leads, Safi and Iseult. Back when the novel was published in 2016 it was still fairly rare to encounter strong platonic female friendships in fiction (it’s not exactly common even now), and so the deep, abiding relationship Safi and Iseult develop in Truthwitch was pretty refreshing to read.

However, the end of the novel sees them split up, and, crucially, they remain apart throughout Windwitch – and with their relationship taking a back seat in this second instalment, the rest of what’s going on in the book begins to look rather tired and familiar. There’s a pirate town and a game of wits; a long trek through the wilderness; a city under threat of magical war, its people starving and mistreated. There’s a magic system that’s so mechanical it feels arbitrary, abstracted from any sort of metaphorical resonance (I am not a fan of structured magic systems for precisely this reason); a prince (Safi’s love interest) presumed dead but actually not; a wicked scheming princess who takes advantage of his absence to seize power. (Actually the princess turns out to be not that wicked after all, and in fact slightly badass, but I admit that by the time this revelation occurred I had sort of stopped caring.) The class dynamics are exactly as you’d expect from this type of story: pretty much every major character is privileged either by their birth or by their possession of magical powers. The one exception is…problematic in other ways. And this is where Dennard’s somewhat misguided attempt at diversity comes in.

The character in question, Cam, is currently the aforementioned Prince Merik’s only supporter/comrade/general helper. He presents as male, but Merik, having accidentally spotted him binding his breasts one (1) time, concludes that he’s actually a woman who chooses to dress as a man for reasons that Merik magnanimously decides not to quiz him about. (That “magnanimously” is sarcasm, by the way.) It becomes clear at the end of the novel, when Merik and Cam have a blazing row, that Cam is a trans man, not a crossdressing woman. Which…great! Trans rep, right? But the upshot of Merik’s obliviousness is that he spends the entire novel misgendering Cam – and, because every scene that Cam is in is told from Merik’s point of view, that means the voice of the novel is misgendering Cam too. This, to put it mildly, is not great. After their row, Merik does resolve to use the correct pronouns for Cam, but the damage is done: the novel has consistently centred a cis character and his personal growth at the expense of a trans character.

This is a pattern that we see over and over in texts about people with marginalised identities. The very existence of this pattern makes it clear that, no, the mere presence of a marginalised character is not and will never be enough to make a book good. Windwitch is ultimately disappointing because it replaces some highly effective representation that defies the gaze of the hegemonic group – the representation of a platonic, abiding female friendship that remains unaffected by Safi’s attraction to Merik – with some very poor representation that prioritises the gaze of the hegemonic group. This isn’t a series that I plan to return to.

Review: Come Tumbling Down

I never seem to have very much to say about Seanan McGuire’s work, despite quite enjoying it when I actually read it. The fifth novella in her Wayward Children series, Come Tumbling Down, is a case in point. Featuring the students of a school for children who once entered other worlds, Narnia-style, and returned to this world only to find the doorways back shut for good, the novella sees a former student of the school, Jack, who managed in an earlier installment to re-enter her magical country, turn up in its basement again in the body of her villainous sister, Jill. Jack and her lover Alexis solicit the help of some of the school’s current students to help Jack get her true body back, a quest that sees them all plunge into the Gothic fantasyland the Moors, where mad scientists pit their strengths against decadent vampires and strange sects worship ancient sea monsters.

It has to be said that this is one hell of a premise. And its execution is at least appropriately toothsome: by which I mean that it has a faintly addictive quality that keeps one racing nicely through the text. The camaraderie between the students of the Home for Wayward Children is also quite nice: as I said earlier this week in my review of Sarah Gailey’s Upright Women Wanted, these children are, in the world of the novella, effectively marginalised by their fantastical experiences (which few of the adults in their lives can understand), and that fictional marginalisation manifests in some cases as real-world marginalisation: Jack is gay and has OCD; Kade, one of the current students who embarks on the quest to help her, is trans; Sumi, another student, is Japanese. So, while the Home functions as a place where those who have lost the lands they loved can find solidarity and understanding, it also, by extension, functions as a space where those with real-world marginalisations receive support and acceptance. In that respect, it, like Gailey’s text, has aspects of wish fulfilment: every character in McGuire’s novella, apart from the obvious baddies (who are very obvious indeed) is genuinely trying their best to be a good person and a supportive friend.

That is, I guess, my problem with Come Tumbling Down, one of the key reasons it’s failed to take root in my imagination: it’s all very…straightforward. It is, at all times, obvious who we are supposed to root for. It’s obvious what the right way to be supportive is. (There is no point, for example, at which different needs clash.) In fact, despite its representation of marginalised identities, it feels distinctly under-politicised, like its speculative metaphors could be better deployed to create real-world meanings.

This, I think, is something that afflicts all of McGuire’s work, including her influential Toby Daye series: she knows her mythology, she’s not afraid to hurt her characters, but she never quite gives her work the political resonance or complexity it needs to be truly memorable. Ultimately, Come Tumbling Down is fine. It was a fun enough read at the time. But I would have liked – a little more oomph.

Review: Upright Women Wanted

A recurring theme amongst the nominees for last year’s Hugo award for Best Novella was: the creation of spaces in which marginalised people could thrive, despite hostility from the wider world. So we had P. Djèlí Clark’s Ring Shout, in which Black joy and Black (specifically Gullah) cultural traditions thrive despite the gathering forces of racism; and Seanan McGuire’s Come Tumbling Down, whose characters attend a school for wayward children – children who, Pevensie-like, have lost the magical worlds whose doors were once open to them, and who commiserate each other’s losses – and whose waywardness often stands in for real-world marginalisation. And then we have Sarah Gailey’s Upright Women Wanted.

The novella, which benefits from a sort of Western feel, is set in a future United States which has succumbed entirely to totalitarianism. Women and LGBT+ people have functionally no rights, the supply of literature and other media is strictly controlled, unelected officials enforce state power violently and with little oversight; the whole shebang. Our protagonist is Esther, a young woman who flees her hometown when her lover Beatriz is executed for possessing unauthorised literature and seeks out a group of Librarians, women who travel around the States distributing authorised material. Esther hopes that travelling with these upright, morally correct women will cure her of what she believes to be sinful, destructive urges. But the truth, as she discovers, is quite the opposite: not only are the Librarians as queer as it gets (and, in fact, not all women: one of them, Cyd, is a non-binary person forced to pass as a woman to survive), they’re also a front for a resistance movement that exists to conduct people like Esther to safety in queer-friendly, “insurrectionist” states.

So this is very much a text born of the Trump era: of fears of creeping authoritarianism, of the rise of the far right and the alt-right, of the rapid erosion of the rights of people who aren’t cis straight able-bodied white men. It’s one of a slew of recent texts that extrapolate current trends in US and world politics into a dystopian future: Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigade is particularly on my mind since last week’s review of her earlier novel Infidel, but there’s also Analee Newitz’s The Future of Another Timeline, Simon Jimenez’s The Vanished Birds – hell, even Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments. Clearly, these are fictions that chime with people; these are realities that feel like they’re on the verge of coming true, even now, a year and a half into Biden’s administration. In this context, in a world that frequently literally is this hostile to LGBT+ people, in a world where all possible versions of the future are terrifying, Upright Women Wanted functions weirdly like – wish fulfilment?

Despite the best efforts of her society, Esther finds her people. She overcomes her internalised queerphobia and self-hatred, and she takes up the fight for a better world. This is a novella that says: we will endure. Even in the worst possible version of the future (short of, I guess, literal apocalypse), we queer folk will survive and thrive and find each other and fight. We cannot be kept down.

Which is, yes, delightful. More queer validation, please! But in order to make this argument the novella also softens the awfulness of its world. Beatriz’s death takes place off-page, and, yeah, Esther is upset about it, but she’s not exactly traumatised (as I expect a real person would be if their literal best friend/lover was literally executed in front of them) and she’s very quick to move on in order to provide some on-page, positive queer romance. She’s also very quick to come out to the Librarians, who she believes, remember, to be among the moral arbiters of her society, and who are moreover complete strangers to her: the risk of her coming out to them is astronomical, and she does it on like page ten.

I mention this not because it makes the text less enjoyable – as I said, this is queer wish fulfilment, and it works very well as such – but because in my view it lessens its power as a text about queer joy and resistance, and it lessens the value of such resistance. It seems weird to say that I want these characters to experience more trauma, but: I do! I want this novella to feel more urgent, more fierce, and ultimately more meaningful. It’s lovely as it is, and Esther’s self-loathing and journey towards self-acceptance struck a particular chord with me. But it could have been better.

Review: Infidel

“The smog in Mushtallah tasted of tar and ashes; it tasted like the war.”

So begins Kameron Hurley’s Infidel, sequel to God’s War, in which we met Nyx, state-sponsored assassin (or bel dame) in an Islamic-inflected future world that has been at war for longer than anyone can remember, over a cause that is all but forgotten. In this second novel, Nyx is no longer a bel dame, and is instead playing bodyguard to the spoiled child of an ambassador when her city, the aforementioned Mushtallah, is targeted in a devastating terrorist attack. She’s then summoned by her Queen to hunt down the rogue bel dames who featured in the events of God’s War, who the Queen believes were responsible for the attack.

None of which conveys the chief pleasure of this series, which is Hurley’s punchy, laconic prose, conjuring as it does the vast desert landscapes her characters inhabit – which in their turn reflect the violent bleakness of those characters’ lives. The improperly terraformed planet of Umayma is barely hospitable to life, and as such is a brilliant metaphor for a society endlessly at war: what joy is to be found there is contingent and brief.

Hurley’s work has often been praised for its diversity: her novels feature unapologetically queer women and people who defy gender stereotypes (one of the reasons for the brutality of the Bel Dame series is undoubtedly to counter notions of women as essentially nurturing, caregiving types – Nyx in particular is anything but that), and of course it’s fairly rare – and was rarer still when Infidel was published back in 2011 – to see speculative futures in fiction that aren’t essentially Western. It does have to be said, however, that both God’s War and Infidel play into enduring and harmful stereotypes that cast Islam as a warlike religion, with the pointlessness and endlessness of the war they depict. It’s not, I think, that Hurley is actively suggesting that this world is constantly at war because it is Islamic; but nor do I think it’s wholly a coincidence that she chose an Islamic milieu for her examination of the effects of unceasing war, even if the reasons for that choice were subconscious. (It’s worth noting that Hurley is a white American who is not, as far as I can discover, Muslim.)

Later on in her career, in 2019’s The Light Brigade, Hurley brings her exploration of total war home to the Americas, combining it with a discussion of the corroding effects of late capitalism. The Light Brigade is technically and thematically the better and more interesting book. But God’s War was one of the first queer SFF books I ever read, and the series’ wide desert spaces, and its protagonist’s uncompromising lack of femininity, still retain a hold on my imagination. I’m looking forward to picking up the third and last book in the trilogy, Rapture.

Review: The Angel of the Crows

Is steampunk dead? It’s a question that’s been rattling around in genre circles for a good ten years, ever since the aesthetic began to make its way out of the subculture and into the mainstream, popping up on haute couture catwalks, in blockbuster films and in music videos by major artists. (Typing “steampunk” into Etsy returns more than 250,000 results.) The problem is clearly not one of waning interest, but rather the opposite: smeared across the world’s media, permeating the world’s markets, have the signs and signifiers of steampunk – cogs, gears, steam engines, bustles, corsets and pocket watches – been emptied of their meaning, aestheticised in the purest sense? Has steampunk lost its (probably already very dubious) punk credentials?

For me, the answer is: indubitably yes. In some cases. Including that of Katherine Addison’s Sherlock-wingfic-turned-respectable-SFF-novel The Angel of the Crows, which transplants Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories into a fantastical version of Victorian London in which werewolves, vampires and ghosts stalk the streets alongside Jack the Ripper. Addison’s Sherlock figure – here named Crow – is an angel, in a world where such beings must remain within specific buildings to retain their identities and individualities; Crow has got around this rule by salvaging a piece of banister from his original residence, and as a result has a somewhat seedy reputation among other angels (it surely doesn’t help that he has taken the rather grandiose title “the Angel of London”). Watson – dubbed J.H. Doyle here for what I suspect are copyright reasons – remains a retired army doctor, except that the wounds the war has left them with are metaphysical rather than material: an encounter with a fallen angel has turned them into an (unregistered, illegal). hellhound. Predictably enough, Crow and Doyle move in together, largely because they are the only people who can tolerate each other, and Doyle becomes drawn into Crow’s hobby-slash-occupation of solving intricate and unusual crimes.

The plots here are all pretty familiar, notwithstanding the supernatural elements: Addison takes us on a Greatest Hits tour of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, from A Study in Scarlet to “The Speckled Band”, leaving motivations, clues and occasionally entire narratives intact. This is an episodic novel, with a vague overarching structure binding it all together: those looking for tight, efficient plotting should probably go elsewhere. The major innovation that Addison has made here is in introducing queer representation (as opposed to the blatant queerbaiting that went on in her source text, the BBC TV series Sherlock): Doyle, as I’ve already intimated, is some flavour of genderqueer, and Crow is vaguely transmasculine. It’s difficult to be definitive about their identities, because Addison herself isn’t: the novel is narrated in the first person by Doyle, no pronoun is ever used to refer to them, they live as a man but explicitly refer to themself as “not a man”; similarly, the masc-presenting Crow tells Doyle that angels are “all female…Insofar as it makes sense to apply gender to asexual beings”, but that “human beings give [angels]…gender”. Electra Pritchett suggests here, pretty compellingly, that Addison is confusing concepts of gender, sex and sexuality, which is one reason why it’s so difficult to make out how to read Crow and Doyle.

Does this queering of these two canonical characters, then, put the punk into Addison’s steampunk setting? Well…not for me: partly because of Addison’s somewhat clumsy handling of their queerness (probably we could argue that the confusion around their transness has to do with the limited vocabulary a Victorian person would have had available to express these concepts, but frankly…this is a novel with hellhounds and angels in it, it’s not THAT committed to historical accuracy), and partly because she doesn’t do a whole lot with it. There is, for example, no real examination of traditional gender roles in Victorian society. And pretty much everything else about this novel is fairly, hmm, unremarkable given the setting and its genre. Crow and Doyle are comfortably middle-class, if occasionally strapped for cash. They do run across the spectre of Victorian colonial imperialism at least once, but not in a way that significantly disturbs the structure or mood of the text. Addison attempts nothing particularly notable with her prose or her plots; generally, the novel isn’t creating any form of productive tension for the reader to rub up against.

The result is, to be fair, a thoroughly enjoyable one: I am not immune to the aesthetic pleasures of steampunk, that warm immersion in a romanticised past, in the comfortingly familiar promises of fog-shrouded London streets where all manner of creatures may lurk. I would happily read a sequel, or two, or five; and seeing queerness represented in this sort of story is always a small joy, even if it is awkwardly done. But throughout my reading of The Angel of the Crows, and beyond, I found myself wondering what the purpose of it all was; what Addison was trying to say. This is steampunk without its bite, steampunk as consolatory, familiar, a sanitised bourgeois fantasy of what was in reality a profoundly oppressive age. This is steampunk-as-zombie: not dead, but not truly alive either.