Review: The Once and Future Witches

The Once and Future WitchesIn 1921, an anthropologist named Margaret Murray published The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, in which she hypothesised that the women who were tried and sentenced as witches between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries were all followers of a suppressed pagan cult built around the Satanic figure of a Horned God. Although Murray’s work on this so-called witch cult has been thoroughly discredited, it had a massive influence on the development of Wicca, whose practitioners often claimed to be the inheritors of those long-dead witches’ secret knowledge. “We are the granddaughters of the witches you couldn’t burn” is still a sentiment you see floating around witchy Tumblr – although I think most Wiccans are a little less literal about it nowadays.

Alix E. Harrow channels a very similar sentiment in her latest novel The Once and Future Witches. Her three protagonists are the Eastwood sisters, James Juniper, Agnes Amaranth and Beatrice Belladonna, in an alternative 1893 in which witchcraft, once a real and vital force, has been all but destroyed by the Church and the patriarchy, surviving only as petty household cantrips and nursery rhymes passed down mother to daughter. James, Agnes and Beatrice, survivors of an abusive childhood that has driven a series of wedges between them, are nevertheless reunited when a magical tower appears in the sky above the town of New Salem, promising the return of real power for women in a world where universal suffrage is still a distant dream. The sisters unite to restore witchcraft to the world, but face resistance from the men of New Salem – in particular a slimy, fundamentalist Christian politician named Gideon Hill – as well as the middle- and upper-class suffragettes who see witchcraft as backward and vulgar.

Witchcraft is an immensely potent metaphor for women’s work, female power and the ways that both have been historically devalued and suppressed; that’s undoubtedly why Murray’s theories have lasted in the popular consciousness to this day. It’s not a new metaphor even in fiction: you can see it at work in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, which feature witches who are both feared and respected for their prowess at traditionally female, domestic activities like attending to the sick and caring for animals.

What Harrow adds, conceptually – what makes The Once and Future Witches really sing – is intersectionality. The Eastwood sisters are poor working-class women: Agnes works in a factory; Beatrice is a librarian’s assistant; James is unemployed thanks to her youth. Their allies include a Black gay woman (and the Black women’s association she’s a part of), a trans woman, Eastern European women and even a couple of men who learn magic for the Eastwoods’ sake. It’s a specifically pluralistic definition of what women’s power looks like and who it benefits (everyone), and Harrow has some good points to make about how different communities are differently affected by misogyny, and how different forms of oppression (racism, sexism, classism, transphobia) interact.

What this intersectional approach to the witchcraft metaphor does, against the alt-historical backdrop of the fight for women’s suffrage, is provide a sort of alternative origin story for feminism – a story in which feminism is inclusive and welcoming right off the bat, in which it brings everyone along at once, without losing any of its anger or incisive power. The Once and Future Witches contains much that is bleak: there is torture, abuse, incarceration, death. But its message, ultimately, is a hopeful, joyful one. It’s a lovely book, one of the best of 2020, and I hope there’s plenty more coming from Harrow.

Review: All Systems Red

This review contains spoilers.

All Systems RedMartha Wells’ Murderbot Diaries, which All Systems Red kicks off, have been quite prodigiously popular among science fiction fans: this first instalment won the 2018 Hugo and Nebula awards for Best Novella; its follow-up Artificial Condition won a Hugo again in 2019; Rogue Protocol and Exit Strategy both won enough votes to be nominated in the same year; and a full-length novel, Network Effect, is up for the Hugo this year. It’s a pretty impressive track record.

The titular Murderbot is a SecUnit, a type of cyborg owned by a company that rents out equipment to planetary exploration teams. Unbeknownst to the company or to its clients, Murderbot has hacked its governor module, meaning it no longer has to obey human commands. It uses its newfound freedom to watch soap operas; in general, its primary goal in life is to be left alone. However, when the survey team it’s been rented to starts finding inexplicable discrepancies in the information they’ve been provided about the planet they’re exploring, Murderbot is forced into closer companionship with its human clients than it would like as it attempts to protect them from an unknown threat.

None of this, on the face of it, is especially groundbreaking. Stories that explore the personhood of artificial intelligences and robots are two a penny; the trope is so abundant, in fact, that mainstream authors have begun to examine it. Nor is All Systems Red‘s plot particularly complex or insightful: Murderbot and the humans get into trouble, and then get out of it; during the course of the story, Murderbot unexpectedly finds companionship, sympathy and a measure of self-determination.

The worldbuilding and Murderbot’s characterisation, though, are what give the novella its moreish quality. Wells is particularly good on what it feels like to live under capitalist conditions: the characters’ complete reliance on the equipment they’ve been supplied by the rental company – equipment which, as we know from Murderbot, is cheaply made and frequently faulty – is an affective reminder of the ubiquity of capitalism and the way it shapes every part of our lives. Similarly, in their attempts to deduce who’s responsible for the danger they’re in, Murderbot and the rest of the survey team are constantly thinking through the logics of capitalism, the kinds of crime that would benefit the company most: so, the company will take a bribe to conceal information from its clients, but will probably not actually hurt them, since that would cost it money. Again, the workings of capitalism are constantly foregrounded in the text, which incidentally makes the world of the novella feel very familiar and legible – since it operates along the exact same economic lines our own world does.

But it’s Murderbot itself that I suspect lies at the heart of the series’ popularity. Murderbot is genderless and asexual. It’s also painfully socially awkward, hating to make eye contact with humans and turning to face the wall when too many people are looking at it. And it cares intensely about the media it consumes.

Murderbot is basically a massive queer nerd.

More seriously, this all feels like an extension of the conversation SF has been having in recent years about who gets to see themselves represented. Many of the stories that make a case for the personhood of robots and AIs paradoxically adopt quite a narrow definition of “personhood” – one that’s generally based on normative, allosexual and neurotypical assumptions about what humans are like. For example, a robot might be shown to be deserving of personhood because it falls in love. It’s refreshing, then, to see a sympathetic robot character who falls outside those parameters, who exhibits both neuroatypical and asexual characteristics – especially given how rare explicitly ace characters still are in all kinds of fiction. It’s a corrective to the normativity of this kind of story.

Ultimately I don’t think All Systems Red is really that groundbreaking: Murderbot is too readily sympathetic a character really to challenge our notions of personhood, and I think even the critique of capitalism is mostly defanged by the novella’s consolatory ending, in which Murderbot is bought by the survey team and essentially freed. Having said that, though, the fact that it does hit so many familiar narrative beats makes it a pretty enjoyable, comfortable read: it’s solid science fiction, well-told, with a relatable protagonist and a convincing world. That’s a combination that’s rarer than you might think.

Review: Paper Girls 1

Paper Girls 1It’s always a little difficult to review single volumes of ongoing graphic novel series, as by their very nature they tend to be open-ended and incomplete rather than self-cohesive works in their own right. Paper Girls 1 is no exception: written by Brian K. Vaughan, creator of Saga, and illustrated by Cliff Chiang, it’s set on Hallowe’en night in 1988, when four 12-year-old newspaper delivery girls stumble into a series of events that’s literally out of this world. Aliens, dinosaurs, time travellers, weird portals in the sky – it’s all here, and the narrative’s fast pace and the fact that it’s setting up what’s obviously going to become quite a complex SF plot means that it’s not easy to make sense of how all these diverse speculative elements hang together.

The four girls, though, sassy, independent, loyal heroines that they are, ground the story in a compelling emotional reality that keeps us reading despite the, well, trippiness of the sci-fi. The book isn’t ultimately about aliens and dinosaurs and time travellers; it’s about the girls’ friendship and their determination to be as good as the boys who traditionally do their job. It’s building on the trend for nostalgic speculative tales like Stranger Things and Ready Player One, only in a way that directly addresses the social inequalities and forms of oppression that characterised the eras audiences are nostalgic for. One of the girls, for instance, uses homophobic slurs early in the volume and is immediately called out on it; obviously your response to this sort of thing will depend heavily on how much you trust the author, but to me it felt like a creative team honouring the things they felt nostalgic for while also resisting the rose-tinted glasses that nostalgia can give us. It’s the kind of choice that made me confident about continuing the series, knowing that wherever the plot was going it would be somewhere thoughtful, original and emotionally satisfying.

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?

Well.

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.