Review: Ashes of Honor

Ashes of HonorThe sixth instalment in Seanan McGuire’s Toby Daye fae detective series, Ashes of Honor continues to build upon the novels’ interest in family and heredity. It’s at least the third book in the series to deal with disappeared children: this time, a heretofore unknown teenage changeling named Chelsea, the daughter of a knight of Toby’s liege lord Duke Sylvester and a human folklore professor at UC Berkeley, is teleporting uncontrollably, ripping open portals into the deep lands of Faerie and jeopardising the stability of the fae’s homes in the Summerlands. Toby, a changeling herself, is engaged by Chelsea’s father Etienne to find her and bring her home before others try to, more violently.

Something that I feel I’ve sort of been skirting around in my posts about the Toby Daye series is McGuire’s treatment of race and how it maps onto real-world civil rights issues. In one sense, the books are reasonably diverse, and become increasingly so as the series goes on: the fae don’t care about sexual orientation or skin colour, and in Ashes of Honor there’s at least one lesbian couple and two brown characters. (As a side note, though, I haven’t seen any real effort in this series to include global mythological traditions: Raj and Jazz remain embedded in a thoroughly Anglo-Celtic folkloric context, which has the probably unintended effect of subordinating non-Western traditions to the Western paradigm.) Skipping ahead a bit, the ninth book in the series, A Red-Rose Chain, features a transgender character who’s treated fairly well by the narrative.

It’s changelings who face the brunt of discrimination in Faerie: those unlucky enough to be born part-human, part-fae. At a certain age changeling children are offered a choice between their fae and human heritage: those who choose the fae world are taken forever from their human parent to face a lifetime of second-class citizenship in Faerie; those who choose humanity are discreetly murdered in order to preserve Faerie’s secrecy. It’s a rough deal, one that the series explicitly frames as a civil rights issue, talking about changeling rights and equality. And it’s not a huge leap from that to reading McGuire’s changelings as analogues for real-world mixed-race people.

Seen in this light, the solution that Ashes of Honor presents to changeling discrimination is rather unsatisfactory. Just as she did for her daughter Gillian at the end of One Salt Sea, Toby draws on her newfound powers to shift the balance of Chelsea’s blood, making her entirely fae to enable her to control her magic. This gives Chelsea a happy ending, allowing her to evade the oppobrium of changeling-hood while also staying with both her parents (since Sylvester allows Etienne to invite his human wife to live with him in Faerie, something that hasn’t been done for hundreds of years). Later novels in the series indicate that Toby sees this as a permanent structural solution to the loss and ill-treatment that changelings suffer. To me, though, it looks like erasure: instead of actually accepting changelings and treating them as equals, let’s just…make them not changelings any more? I’m reminded of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, which touts the internet as the solution to racism and sexism because everyone can just pretend to be white men. These are “solutions” that put the burden on the oppressed, not the oppressor, which is exactly backwards.

I’m not trying to suggest here that the Toby Daye books are particularly objectionable or deliberately racist: they’re no worse than a lot of Western mainstream fiction, and it’s also clear that McGuire is intentionally working to improve representation in a series whose first instalment was written 12 years ago. I do think the series is a good example of a text in which generic conventions – in this case the detective novel’s focus on individual trauma and the need to restore the status quo – are pulling against its overt concerns and themes: here, the attempt to work towards a structural solution to institutional discrimination. Sometimes that tension can be productive; for this series, though, it’s just limiting. Ashes of Honor is fun, but the novel, and the series as a whole, is not really equipped to deal satisfactorily with the anxieties it’s evoking.

Review: Spark Joy

Spark JoyMarie Kondo needs little introduction right now: with two Netflix series (one of them Emmy-nominated) and a bestselling book, titled in English The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, translated into at least 11 languages, the Japanese tidying consultant has become a global phenomenon. Spark Joy is the second of her books to be translated into English; it reportedly covers little new ground, but rather expands on the principles outlined in Life-Changing Magic.

The book’s title, a phrase which has become synonymous with Kondo’s approach to tidying up, refers to the question one must ask of any object in one’s home: does this spark joy? If yes, it can stay; if no, it goes. (There are some fudges to account for mundane but useful objects like screwdrivers: these, Kondo says, can be said to spark joy in their ability to carry out their function effectively, and so can be kept.) Underlying this simple principle is an animistic philosophy which can come across as twee or trite to Western readers: remarks like “Balling your socks and stockings, or tying them into knots, is cruel”, and suggestions that high-value currency notes feel pride, are somewhat eyebrow-raising.

The problem, I think, is to some extent one of positioning: Spark Joy is sold in the West as a self-help book, a practical manual on home organisation, and it’s somewhat jarring in that context to come across these quasi-religious/spiritual statements. (Kondo has said in the past that her approach is based on Shinto principles.) I also think Cathy Hirano’s straightforward, plain-English translation does these ideas no favours: I’ve written before about how easy it is for religious principles to be rendered trite and absurd by authors who fail to capture the sense of the numinous and the profound that lie behind those principles. (It may be that this problem is present in Kondo’s original text, but as a non-Japanese speaker I don’t have access to that; and in any case I suspect Kondo’s principles make more sense in her cultural context.)

In any case there are some useful titbits to be gleaned from Spark Joy: I’ve moved house recently, and while I didn’t follow Kondo’s decluttering advice to the letter, I did find myself thinking of her “spark joy” principle when choosing what to keep and what to recycle or give away. Her folding tips, too, have been useful in storing stuff away in new spaces. And, at root, her philosophy that the sacred resides in every material thing is one I fundamentally share. But Spark Joy ultimately did not spark joy in me.

Review: The Overstory

The OverstoryOne of the main criticisms that I’ve seen levelled against Richard Powers’ Booker-shortlisted eco-novel The Overstory is its lack of complex characterisation. In a judgement for the Tournament of Books, for example, Tomi Obaro writes that “Characters increasingly felt more like archetypes than real, lived-in people…[Powers] loses the people for the trees.” Others have pointed out its use of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope and its stereotyping of its Chinese-American and Indian-American characters. These flaws all undoubtedly exist; but they’re interesting to me because I think they’re by-products of an attempt to write a literary novel that is not anthropocentric. That is: if Powers misses the people for the trees, it’s because he means to.

It’s a messy novel, hard to summarise, that weaves together multiple strands and plotlines; but at its heart it brings together nine-ish characters whose lives have been changed or shaped, for better or for worse, by trees. Neelay Mehta falls from a tree as a child and is permanently paralysed; Olivia Vandergriff, having undergone a near-death experience, hears the voices of the USA’s last redwood trees calling on her to protect them; Nicholas Hoel is the inheritor of a remarkable family heirloom, a collection of old-style analogue photographs of a chestnut tree, taken every day from the same angle for close on a century. And so on. Many of these stories eventually become woven around tree-focused activism of some sort: a camp of hippies defending virgin forest against loggers; weeks spent in the branches of a towering redwood slated for felling; amateur arson in the dark.

What makes the novel different from the countless such sprawling social narratives Western literary culture has produced since Dickens (see also: Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru; Jonathan Franzen’s Purity; David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks; and so on) is Powers’ ascribing of intent to the trees: they narrate key passages as a sort of Greek chorus, and may or may not influence events in the narrative. This is well and subtly done: the trees’ narration is used sparingly enough that it never becomes cheap or trite or easy, and similarly their agency in the story is always sufficiently doubtful (is the compulsion Olivia feels just a side-effect of her accident? Did that tree really tip Neelay to the ground, or is that an impression born of a child’s overactive imagination?) that their true purposes remain unknowable, just out of sight. The trees of The Overstory are not wise, kindly Treebeards on the side of all good people; the effect is rather that of a vast, unknowable, alien presence lurking just off-page.

Powers writes with wonder and awe of the things that trees can do: of forests connected to a single underground organism spreading across acres; of the organic chemicals they emit to communicate with each other, chemicals that can even affect humans; of the incredible feats of biology that allow giant redwoods to draw water and nutrients up fifty metres into the air. In the face of their age, majesty and size, and the vast tragedy that is the deforestation of the USA, the actions of individual humans, however well-intentioned, begin to look increasingly irrelevant and futile. The trees, in other words, are the true protagonist of The Understory; individual trees (Mimas the giant redwood, the Hoel chestnut, the evergreen grove that engineer Mimi Ma fails to save) as well as trees in the abstract; and if the human characters are thinly sketched and their motivations questionable, it’s because they are, for Powers, not the focus of the story. Their individual subjectivities are relatively insignificant in the grand scale of the narrative.

It’s a bold approach for a genre like litfic that is generally focused on the individual bourgeois psyche, and not one that’s entirely successful. That the human characters are not ultimately important does not mean that they need to be lazy stereotypes; indeed, using such stereotypes in this way to gesture at humanity in the abstract suggests problematically that Powers thinks such stereotypes are true, or at the very least accurately representative. There are also odd threads of story that Powers fails to weave wholly successfully into his narrative tapestry: Neelay’s plotline, which sees him developing a massively profitable MMORPG based on exploring and developing a virgin world, seems poorly thematically integrated into the rest of the novel; similarly, it’s hard to see where stroke-paralysed Ray and his unfaithful but caring wife Dottie fit in. Ray and Dottie’s imaginary daughter is called Olivia, a detail which, together with the fact that another character’s story has an alternative ending that depends on whether she meets Neelay or not, suggests an underdeveloped mystical/many-worlds angle. It’s as if Powers has gone for a Cloud Atlas-ish “everything is connected” vibe without quite knowing what he intends to do with it.

And yet, for all its flaws, I find myself thinking of The Overstory when I’m out among trees, thinking of that vast and unknowable consciousness and all the things we’re still learning about these remarkable organisms that we share our planet with. The Overstory may be a flawed attempt to grapple with a non-human perspective, but it’s attempt I’ve seen relatively few writers make, especially outside the walled garden of SFF. So many of our narratives about the climate crisis and biodiversity loss centre humanity, even those that cast us as the villains; perhaps, if we are to reverse the damage we are doing to the natural world, radical change and radical approaches are needed. Powers’ is one such approach; I hope others will follow.

Review: Unconquerable Sun

Unconquerable SunKate Elliott’s most recent novel, 2020’s Unconquerable Sun, has been marketed fairly extensively as “gender-swapped Alexander the Great in space”. I have to say that Alexander the Great as a cultural touchstone means little to me: about the only two things I knew about him before looking at his Wikipedia page last night were that he had a horse called Bucephalus and that he was really excellent at conquering other nations. I’ve certainly never come across a tradition of Alexander the Great literature (a tradition like the Matter of Britain, say, or the endless readaptations of Shakespeare or Austen or Grimm fairytales); but given his military reputation, and specifically his reputation for conquest, I have to say that science fiction, a genre whose most characteristic impulses sprang directly from colonialism, seems a natural choice for adapting and examining his story.

Elliott’s Alexander analogue is Sun, Princess of the Republic of Chaonia, a nation that has recently driven out the occupying Phene Empire and which is now in the process of expanding into Phene territory. Sun is desperate to prove her military acumen to her mother, an ambition that’s complicated by the fact that her father isn’t Chaonian, exposing Sun to suspicion and leaving her vulnerable should her mother choose to marry again. Her father, meanwhile, a prince of the space-nomadic Gatoi, is working on a top-secret project researching the Phene Empire’s use of Gatoi soldiers, and whether the Gatoi’s famous loyalty to their employers has a more sinister origin than the Phene would have their neighbours believe.

Unconquerable Sun, then, is a space opera/military SF novel that’s centrally concerned with power, conquest and the machinery of war. What’s particularly interesting about it is that, despite Sun’s place at the centre of the text (along with her hand-picked, high-status Companions) and the narrative status she’s given by analogy with Alexander the Great, the novel isn’t necessarily wholly on her side. In fact we have three point of view characters here: Sun herself; a woman named Persephone Lee who has attempted to disown her powerful Chaonian family in order to attend military academy; and Apama, a newly-fledged Phene pilot who’s assigned to a major campaign against Chaonia. Apama and Sun are obviously on opposite sides, and yet both are sympathetic; Persephone’s story draws attention to the unprincipled self-interest at work among Chaonia’s ruling families, effectively the social order that Sun is fighting for.

The idea that Chaonia is perhaps not fully a force for good is further reinforced by the glimpses we get of everyday life there. Although full citizens seem to have a relatively high standard of living –public transport is free, for example, albeit as part of the war effort – the celebration of royal occasions such as the queen-marshal’s wedding is mandatory. And one of Sun’s bodyguards, Ti, is the daughter of refugees; her willingness to put herself in extreme danger, even to die, in order to collect her paycheck for her family, is an indication of how desperate their situation is; an indication that’s confirmed when we see the off-world refugee camp where they live later on in the novel, where even fresh air is rationed for non-citizens.

There is, in other words, a nice sense of roundedness to Unconquerable Sun: it’s interested in complicating simple notions of good and bad, heroism and villainy, the conqueror and the conquered. That roundedness extends to the queer representation we get in the novel: same-gender relationships are unremarkable, and Sun’s mother the queen-marshal has at least two spouses that we know of (one male, one female). It’s there, too, in the attempt Elliott has made to depict a version of the future that is non-Western: Chaonian culture in particular has a vaguely Asian flavour, although it is just that, flavour, rather than anything more substantial.

That, and other flaws, make this a solid novel rather than an exceptional one: on a sentence level the writing is a little clumsy – not terrible, just insufficiently harmonious – and Elliott is unfortunately prone to infodump. I also think Elliott could have perhaps done more with her historical premise: as it is the Alexander the Great parallels feel more like an Easter egg for history buffs than anything that actually informs the novel thematically or metatextually. But I enjoyed the crunchiness of it, its willingness to complicate its readers’ preconceptions; to show us a full picture of a universe at war, and who loses and who gains from that. Its awareness of axes of power, social and political, and how they operate on ordinary people both civilian and military. I’m moderately surprised this wasn’t on the Hugo ballot this year; Elliott’s a recognised name in SFF at the moment, and Unconquerable Sun is precisely the kind of novel that Hugo voters are rewarding right now. In any case, I’m looking forward to reading the sequel.

Film Review: Crazy Rich Asians

Hollywood shapes all things in its image. While the novel from which John M. Chu’s 2018 romcom Crazy Rich Asians is adapted is one whose pleasures are ultimately consolatory and conservative, it does at least resist providing an entirely happy ending for the couple at its heart. Its villains remain villainous and, for all its rags-to-riches wish-fulfilment vibe, its Cinderella figure’s access to entrenched power structures remains tenuous and contingent.

The film, by contrast, is as thoroughly conventional, structurally speaking, as it’s possible to get, although its predictability is somewhat leavened by strong performances from the likes of Constance Wu, Henry Golding and Gemma Chan. Wu and Golding play Rachel and Nick, a seemingly ordinary middle-class couple in New York who find their relationship under sudden strain when Nick invites Rachel back to meet his family in Singapore, only for her to discover that they’re some of the wealthiest people in the country. Will Rachel ever be accepted by Nick’s snobby high-society family?

The answer is, inevitably, yes, and the film has to sacrifice some of its own character work to achieve this: Nick’s cold, unhappy grandmother Eleanor, who has throughout the film remained resolute in her hostility towards Rachel, performs an unearned about-face at the end in a move that somewhat fatally undermines the seriousness of the social problem that Nick and Rachel must overcome to be together. Similarly, the film’s “mean girls” are far less relentless and uncompromising in their disdain for Rachel than they were in the novel, as well as far less inclined to seduce Nick away from Rachel. The novel has what teeth it does partly because Nick’s family’s extreme wealth is presented as a real threat to Nick and Rachel’s relationship; the film dilutes even that quite basic understanding of privilege and instead renders the fabulous wealth of its characters as a fabulous fantasy with no real-world effects or ramifications. Who doesn’t want to hire out an entire tropical island for their hen party, amirite?

Crazy Rich Asians is, of course, remarkable for the fact that it’s a major Hollywood film featuring an almost entirely non-white cast, a phenomenon that’s still lamentably rare – and while it’s good to see mainstream films looking beyond the concerns of the global north, there’s been plenty of criticism of this particular film for actually reinforcing dominant hegemonies in Singapore itself.

Ultimately, as a film, it’s basically fine. Watching it is a not-bad way to spend two hours, if you’re after something untaxing and conventional. But I can’t particularly see myself watching it again, the way I can see myself returning to the novel: ironically, despite the wealth and power its characters possess, the stakes are simply not high enough to make it truly engaging.

Review: Mossflower

This review contains spoilers.

MossflowerThe Goodreads page for Brian Jacques’ Mossflower, the second novel in his Redwall series (in publication order, that is; chronologically it’s third) for middle grade readers, is full of delighted reviews from adults who’ve revisited a childhood favourite and discovered that it measures up. Of course there are not many 12-year-olds writing Goodreads reviews of any book (in fact it’s against their terms of service); but compare it to something like The Wind Singer, a similarly iconic children’s novel published around the same time, and it’s obvious that the nostalgia is particularly strong with this one.

So what’s going on? I think it’s partly to do with the way Jacques constructs an idyllic English landscape that’s completely free of humans, and thus of the ennui and moral complexity that characterises modernity. The titular Mossflower is a region of woodland inhabited by hardworking mice, hedgehogs, moles and squirrels who are being tyrannised by the wildcat Lord Verdauga and his paranoid daughter Tsarmina. Our story begins when a wandering mouse named Martin is captured by Tsarmina’s troops and imprisoned in the wildcats’ castle, Kotir; there, in the dungeons, Martin meets Gonff, a merry thief who convinces him to join the woodlanders’ resistance. Together with a mole named Dinny, Martin and Gonff head out on a quest to the seashore, many days’ journey away, to find a legendary badger warrior who can help the people of Mossflower defeat Tsarmina.

One of the most notorious things about the series is the way it assigns morality based on species, despite ostensibly extolling the virtues of tolerance and peaceful coexistence. With a couple of exceptions, all rats, foxes, stoats, weasels, ferrets and wildcats are villains, while (with no exceptions) all mice, moles, squirrels, otters, badgers, shrews and hares are good, law-abiding folk. It makes a kind of emotional sense: we do think of rats, foxes and weasels as vermin, while otters, mice and moles are popularly conceived of as fluffy and benevolent. It’s also a comfortingly straightforward way of seeing the world: being able to tell good from bad just by looking makes a lot of things a lot easier. No need to decide which actions are wrong and which ones right; no need to differentiate morally between intent and impact; no need to give the benefit of the doubt to someone who ends up not deserving it. It is, of course, a falsely simplified model, and one that lies behind significant real-world harms (most notably racism, but also the unattainable beauty standards that disproportionately affect women around the world); but that simplicity is also seductive.

Another frequently-remarked-on feature of the Redwall books is their lavish descriptions of food: the woodlanders of Mossflower love a good banquet. A celebratory meal late in the novel features deeper ‘n ever pie, leek and onion broth, fruit pie, nut pudding, quince and apple crumble, plum pudding, October ale, cider and buttermilk – delicious-sounding, hearty and quintessentially British foods all, epitomising abundance and plenty. Again, it’s the stuff of blissful nostalgia, and again that nostalgia obscures something quite reactionary: all of this food has been prepared by housewife hedgehog Goody Stickle. (It’s worth noting here that while there are several prominent female characters, none of them go on the quest with Martin, and most of them are relegated to caring and domestic roles.)

What else? Well, there’s the consolatory plot structure, which sees Martin returning from his quest changed, with the skills and resources to oust Tsarmina and restore order and peace to Mossflower. There’s the squeaky clean romance between Gonff and a young mousemaid, which involves absolutely no drama or angst or awkward relationship conversations. There’s the slight Church of England vibe we get from the woodlanders, who early on welcome refugees from a place called Loamhedge Abbey, and who will go on to found the Mossflower-based Redwall Abbey (as we know from the novel’s frame narrative): their largely unexamined emphasis on inoffensive values like peace and mutual aid is reminiscent of the sort of gentle religiosity one experiences in Church of England schools.

What all of this adds up to, I think, is an overall textual affect that recalls popular constructions of childhood in the West. The moral and romantic simplicity, the importance and abundance of food, the ousting of evil by the forces of good, the unmarked Christianity: these are all hallmarks either of actual childhood or of what we as adults think it was like to be a child. Any adult re-reading a childhood favourite is in some sense attempting to revisit their childhood; but Mossflower, and the other Redwall books, make it much easier than most classic children’s texts to access the idealised, nostalgic version of childhood that we’re attempting to recapture when we do this. Its obvious ideological problems demonstrate the danger inherent in this sort of reading, and in our conceptions of children and childhood.

Review: Interesting Times

TW: transphobia.

Interesting TimesIt’s rarely a good sign when the name of a beloved author begins trending on Twitter, and so it proved over the weekend, when transphobes attempted to suggest that the works of prolific comic fantasy author Sir Terry Pratchett support their so-called “gender critical” ideology. This is…a reach, to put it mildly: Pratchett’s Discworld series features several minor characters, chief among them the dwarf Cheery Littlebottom, who can be read as transgender or genderfluid, and his works generally show a tendency towards opposing all forms of hate and any ideology that refuses to acknowledge the humanity of other people. At the same time, though, those who are defending Pratchett as a sort of ultraprogressive literary hero are, I feel, massively overstating the case: he’s nowhere near as interested in gender as either the transphobes or his liberal supporters would like him to be, and he’s more than capable of being problematic in other areas too. Interesting Times, a middle-period Discworld novel, is a salient example.

The book sees cowardly wizard (or, in his own words, “Wizzard”) Rincewind summoned to the inscrutable, powerful Agatean Empire – a caricatured analogue of China/Japan – for unknown reasons. There, he finds a people’s revolution fomenting against the cruel and oppressive imperial regime, and meets the elderly barbarian Cohen, who, together with his equally elderly Silver Horde, is planning the heist of a lifetime.

Where to start with this? Well, there’s the title, which refers to the well-known “Chinese curse”, “May you live in interesting times!” – which has never been traced back to an actual Chinese-language saying. Nevertheless, Pratchett builds on the ironic understatement of the phrase to imagine a vaguely Oriental society that’s chronically polite and rigidly hierarchical: hampered by etiquette, the revolutionary Red Army uses slogans like “Untimely Demise to the Forces of Oppression!” and “Much Ownership of Means of Production!” Their revolutionary text is What I Did on My Holidays, an account of Agatean citizen Twoflower’s visit to Pratchett’s anarchic Victorian London analogue Ankh-Morpork. (Readers first met Twoflower in The Colour of Magic, the very first Discworld novel, in which he is a caricature of a tourist.)

With all of this Pratchett is making an argument about internalised tyranny:

The Empire’s got something worse than whips all right. It’s got obedience. Whips in the soul. They [the Agatean peasants] obey anyone who tells them what to do. Freedom just means being told what to do by someone different.

While this is an interesting social dynamic to explore, and one that’s of a piece with Pratchett’s other writing on tyranny and power, it’s not one that particularly rings true in the context of historical Asia, and it’s worth considering why Pratchett felt the need to displace this particular breed of oppression into a non-Western context, when there are plenty of historical European societies that would work just as well. (The fictional Discworld country of Uberwald, which is ruled by ancient dynasties of werewolves and vampires, would have been a good place to set such a story.) Notably, Ankh-Morpork, a city ruled over by a literal tyrant, is portrayed here as a bastion of freedom and entrepreneurship, its dangers and oppressions as somehow more honest than the Empire’s. This is literally Orientalism in action, a Western-coded city-state being defined in opposition to the Eastern-coded Other, and coming out the better for the comparison.

Theoretical considerations aside, some – lots – of the jokes are just plain racist. There’s Rincewind addressing a Red Army member in a sort of broken English pidgin (which doesn’t even make sense, given that Rincewind is supposedly speaking Agatean at this point) – “Here’s bigfella keys belong door…” There are Chinese restaurant jokes. There are stereotypical, faux-exotic names that, as far as I can tell, bear no resemblance to actual Chinese nomenclature: Pretty Butterfly, One Big River. (Weirdly this actually feels more Native-coded than Chinese-coded, which just goes to show how lazy Pratchett is being in constructing Agatean culture.)

From a series perspective there is some interesting stuff going on here. Cohen and Rincewind – the ultimate hero and the arch-coward – are always good foils for each other; the fact that both end up triumphing against overwhelming odds despite their opposing worldviews is a nice touch. I like the overt metanarrative about luck and fate; that’s quite fun, despite the fact that it connects poorly to the novel’s grander themes of power and tyranny. And ultimately it’s not a nasty novel. It’s a story about putting people ahead of ideology, a story that cares about individuals in all their variety and idiosyncrasy. All the same, it’s a novel that’s aged extremely badly, and not one that Pratchett fandom should be proud of.

Review: Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper

Shark's Fin and Sichuan PepperOriginally a Cambridge English graduate raised in Oxford, food writer Fuschia Dunlop became interested in China during a stint working for the BBC Monitoring Unit in Caversham. Chasing this interest, she applied for, and won, a British Council scholarship to study at Sichuan University; but quickly lost interest in her official research into Chinese ethnic minorities, and instead enrolled on a course at the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine, the first Westerner, and the first woman, to do so. She’s now recognised as one of the foremost Western experts on Chinese cooking; Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper is the tale of how she got there.

There’s of course something a little awkward about reading a middle-class white woman speak with authority about a culture she hasn’t been raised in, although Dunlop has at least spent a significant amount of time – months, years – actually living in China. In Dunlop’s case, I’d already read her cookbooks The Food of Sichuan and Land of Fish and Rice, which the Bandersnatch has been cooking from, and which, for me, illuminated a number of things that can make Chinese cooking seem unpalatable by Western standards. In particular, texture is key in Chinese cuisine: it’s why you see things like jellyfish and chicken gizzards on the menu at good Chinese restaurants in the West. It’s this kind of context – supplemented by historical material about the origins of particular dishes and particular branches of Chinese cooking – that makes the writing in Dunlop’s cookbooks feel deeply informed, going beyond the exoticism and Orientalism that’s endemic in Western writing about Asian cuisine to become something that’s both accessible to Western readers and at least approaching “authentic”. I mean, it’s still uncomfortable that Dunlop is a leading expert on this subject, and not an actual Chinese person – even if this isn’t precisely Dunlop’s fault. But it does, at least, seem to be actual expertise.

I’d say Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper veers a little more into exoticising territory, though, perhaps simply because of its nature as a personal memoir rather than reference-book writing. Dunlop has a tendency to make rather generalising statements about whole cities and regions:

No one would decide to go and live in Chongqing after such a baptism of fire [Dunlop is referring here to the chilli-heat of Chongqing cuisine]. But Chengdu is a gentle city. Life there is not a battle against the elements and the gradient of hills; it is a sweet, idle dream.

There’s a fair bit of this sort of thing, details that make it clear that Dunlop’s seeing China from the outside, and not as a full-time inhabitant would. As in her cookbooks, however, there’s also real, thought-provoking engagement with the history and context of Chinese cuisine and food culture. Dunlop traces the progression of her deepening love for Chinese food – and especially Sichuan food – and then, in later chapters, reveals her disillusionment with the country: with its rife corruption, the endemic pollution, the thriving trade in meat from endangered species. She visits Xinjiang and describes the discrimination that Uyghur Muslims were facing there even back in 2008, in a foreshadowing of the internment camps that exist across the region today. She describes how the increasing wealth of China’s middle class is pushing up demand for rare delicacies, decimating ecosystems around the world. Dunlop’s research background shines here: it’s all fascinating analysis about one of the world’s largest economic powers, although again her framing of China’s flaws as personal disappointments for her, a Westerner, gives the whole thing a slightly uncomfortable cast.

Even when she isn’t being critical, there are things Dunlop writes about that I would rather not have read, on the whole. The subject of eating puppies comes up several times. More seriously, Dunlop describes methods of animal butchery that are literally inhumane: she describes somebody skinning a rabbit without killing it first, for example, and goes on to praise the “honesty” of such a process, compared to the sanitised industrial meat production that goes on in the West. This, to me, is symptomatic of Dunlop’s romanticising of Chinese food culture: both processes, Chinese and Western, seem equally inhumane in different ways, and neither is particularly excusable.

There are problems with Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper, then; its very nature, as an account of a Westerner’s relationship with China, means it’s never going to be entirely satisfactory as an authority on that country. But, on the whole, I did quite enjoy it. I like that it does engage with criticisms of China; that it illuminates aspects of Chinese food culture for Westerners; that it draws attention to regional differences in Chinese cuisine which are often blurred in the Western cultural consciousness. Fascinating and imperfect, it’s well worth a read if you’re at all interested in Chinese food.

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: Inkheart

This review contains spoilers.

InkheartCornelia Funke’s Inkheart is, if my childhood experience with it is anything to go by, a very successful novel that achieves exactly what it sets out to. It’s a novel for older children – not quite YA – about the importance and danger of reading, and it’s directly responsible for some of my most basic beliefs about, and approaches to, books and their materiality.

Protagonist Meggie, the daughter of a bookbinder named Mo, has been brought up to love and respect the objects that her father restores so painstakingly. Books are her constant companions and her friends: she sleeps with them under her pillow, and never goes anywhere without one if she can help it. One evening, her father receives a mysterious visit from a man called Dustfinger, who warns him about an equally mysterious figure named Capricorn – a terrifying personage by all accounts. The next morning, Mo and Meggie flee, without explanation, to the house of Meggie’s aunt Elinor, where Meggie eventually learns that Mo has the power to make fictional things and beings manifest in the real world simply by reading aloud. Years ago, he accidentally read Capricorn, and the hapless Dustfinger, out of a fantasy novel called Inkheart – and read Meggie’s absent mother, who Meggie has never met, back into it. Now, Capricorn wants to destroy all extant copies of Inkheart, so that he can never be returned to the world depicted within its pages; but that will leave Meggie’s mother stuck there too.

So this is a novel interested, I think, in authority – a word I use advisedly, given its relationship to the word “author”. The authority of the written word is paramount in Inkheart: Mo’s power only works when he’s reading aloud; simple oral storytelling has no effect. The good characters here treat books with respect and reverence; the villains burn them. (Capricorn’s evil finds its zenith in his destruction of Elinor’s vast library.) The notion of authority comes into sharp relief later in the novel when Inkheart‘s author Fenoglio comes onto the scene: the climax depends on him writing new words for his book, altering it so that Capricorn dies – so that when those new words are read aloud, Capricorn is destroyed in this world too. It’s interesting that only Fenoglio can do this – that only the author can change the story – and that Fenoglio is also considered to have special knowledge of his characters’ motivations, knowledge beyond what’s written on the page. This is an Enlightenment view of authorship, underpinned by the Protestant idea that the Bible, the Word of God, is the single and highest authority on what Christians should believe and how they should live. It’s a view that has no truck with the death of the author: Fenoglio is basically God to his creations, with absolute power over their lives and deaths.

For much of the novel, then, authority lies chiefly with two men, Mo and Fenoglio. But, gradually, and unbeknownst to her father, Meggie begins experimenting with her own reading voice, and discovers that she too can make written things real. Ultimately, it’s Meggie who reads Capricorn into oblivion in Mo’s absence (although her father turns up just in time to finish the passage when she falters). This is partly about Meggie growing up, realising her full potential; taking her place in the Symbolic order, if we want to get Lacanian about it (and, let’s face it, I always want to get Lacanian about it). But there’s also a feminist point here too, I think, in the fact that we’re seeing a girl ascend to traditionally male authority; an especially important point in view of the fact that her mother, who we discover among Capricorn’s retinue at the end of the book, has symbolically lost her voice.

Something that I found striking and unusual about Inkheart as a novel for children is that Mo is a constant presence throughout the story. Most MG and YA novels sideline parental figures as a way of giving their young protagonists greater agency: think of parentless Lyra in Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, or the way that September is blown off to Fairyland in Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making. But Funke manages to keep Mo by Meggie’s side, attempting to protect her, while at the same time giving Meggie the space to become her own authority (although it’s notable that it’s when Meggie and Mo are parted temporarily that she’s able to defeat Capricorn). Their relationship is strong, trusting and respectful; I’d argue that in some respects it’s actually a better model for exploring childhood agency in a realistic way than the absent-parent one, as real Western children for the most part gain agency as Meggie does, gradually and in small doses. It also situates Meggie better in her social context: it’s clear that she’s coming of age into a specific community, a family, rather than into a sort of individualistic vacuum.

This is where Meggie’s budding sort-of-a-romance with Farid, a boy who’s been read out of One Thousand and One Nights along with a bunch of gold, comes into play. I mean, I say romance, I think they share a couple of charged glances and blush a bit; it’s very much an undercurrent rather than a major plot point, but then they’re both about twelve. It’s the suggestion that’s important, placing Meggie at the gates of adulthood, starting to take her place in the grown-up social order. And although I wouldn’t say Funke’s portrayal of Farid is entirely unproblematic – she doesn’t really bother to complicate the stereotypes that popular understandings of One Thousand and One Nights have given us – it still feels fairly unusual to read about a possible interracial romance in a mainstream children’s novel from 2005.

At the beginning of this review, I talked about how influential Inkheart has been on how I interact with and think about books. Until a couple of years ago, I slept with a book under my pillow at night (and still do when I’m on my own). I have a book with me pretty much wherever I go. I’m always currently reading something. I don’t dog-ear pages, or throw books away; book art, however intricate and lovely, makes me feel conflicted and sad. Because books are important. Books are sacred.

This is all because of Inkheart. Inkheart taught me about the importance of authority, the importance of the Word; a concept that’s central to a lot of Western thought, particularly pre-modernism. If one of the functions of children’s literature is to help induct young readers into the majority culture, then Inkheart certainly does the job.