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 Water Dancer

This review contains spoilers.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2019 novel The Water Dancer is speculative fiction doing what speculative fiction does best: defamiliarising the world and our place in it, calling us to see it with fresh eyes. Our protagonist is Hiram Walker, a slave on a declining plantation in antebellum Virginia who discovers that he has the power to move himself and other people over large distances through a process dubbed “conduction” – a process that seems to have a mystical connection to water. He uses this power to escape the plantation, joining up with an underground group of abolitionists working to move slaves north to freedom – and is forced to confront the question of what freedom truly means when your history has been taken from you.

Comparisons, usually negative ones, have inevitably been drawn between The Water Dancer and Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel The Underground Railroad, in which a fleeing slave escapes to a series of alternative futures using a literal hidden railway. Both novels, then, deploy magical realism to elide the actual journeys of their escaping characters in order to place their thematic focus elsewhere; both are interested in part in the motivations of white abolitionists and the way they were often just as racist as actual slaveowners. For my money, though – and perhaps this is because I am first and foremost an SFF reader, not a litfic reader – Coates’ novel is the more lyrical, the more compelling, and the more unusual.

Its key defamiliarisation tactic is not, in fact, its use of conduction, but the way that it almost never uses the word “slave” or “slavery”. Coates’ fictional Virginia features three different classes of people: the Tasked, the African-American slaves; the Quality, the white landowners; and the Low, working-class white people (usually men). To me this classification system registers as a little YA-dystopian, which I don’t mean as a negative comment: I think this is Coates’ comics background bleeding through, reminding us primarily that slavery was first and foremost a system of dehumanisation, a system based – like many YA dystopias – on an arbitrary construct (in this case, the construct of race).

One way in which The Water Dancer differs from Whitehead’s novel – and many other narratives of slavery – is that there is comparatively little on-page violence. Whitehead’s enslaved characters operate constantly under the threat of torture and rape. His protagonist Cora knows that the fate she will meet if she is recaptured will most likely be worse than death; and Whitehead does not shy away from depicting that possible fate as it is suffered by other would-be escapees. Lurking behind these depictions of violence is the reader’s knowledge that they are not solely fictional, that these punishments were inflicted upon fleeing slaves in real life. Coates’ novel is different: while we do hear about floggings, rape and straight-up medical neglect, it’s comparatively rare that they’re actually described on-page, and when we do see it it’s never as extreme as it is in The Underground Railroad. This is, I want to suggest, because Coates is interested in the institution of slavery itself as inherently dehumanising, rather than the atrocities that were inflicted upon Black bodies under the auspices of that institution.

Witness, for example, the role that memory plays in the novel. Conduction relies upon memory, and particularly upon cultural memory, on the history that links all the novel’s enslaved African-Americans together. In order to harness conduction so he can save more Tasked from the south, Hiram must reconnect with a long-lost memory of his dead mother. Lost families are everywhere in The Water Dancer: the plantation Tasked are terrified of being sent west to more prosperous states, as they’ll be separated from their families and communities; Hiram himself leaves behind a mother-figure, Thena, when he escapes. What slavery takes from its victims, then, is a sense of shared history, community and memory; working with the abolitionists, Hiram comes to understand, as his white colleagues cannot, that there is no true freedom without these things. That’s why conduction depends upon memory: Hiram is only able to bring freedom to the Tasked when he can restore a little of the shared culture that has been taken from them.

The Water Dancer is a novel, then, that uses the techniques of speculative fiction to defamiliarise the institution of slavery in order to re-emphasise its brutality; to draw attention away from the physical cruelty of slaveowners and their white staff and towards the way that slavery in and of itself had dehumanising effects that reverberate to this day. It’s a novel about family, about shared memory, about Black community, narrated in dreamy, elegant prose that emphasises the beauty and importance of the intangibles that Hiram is trying to return to his fellow Tasked. It’s the kind of novel that reminds me why I read SFF, and why SFF is a valuable pursuit.

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.

Film Review: Addams Family Values

A singularly cursèd text, and that is all I have to say about it.

(For some reason the way the film sexualises the classically grotesque Fester really disturbed me in a way that’s probably very Gothic, if you wanted to psychoanalyse it. I also thought it would have been 100% more interesting as a viewing experience had it been what the first few scenes promised, a film about a hyper-competent nanny who is entirely unfazed by the Addams children’s supernatural shenanigans, instead of following a hoary old “golddigger murderess” plot.

Also, yes, I liked the summer camp set piece, thought the racial politics were pretty on point for the 90s, but wish Wednesday’s speech about the oppression of Native Americans had been given to an actual Native American character.)

Review: The Dragon Republic

This review contains spoilers for The Poppy War and The Dragon Republic.

The sequel to R.F. Kuang’s explosive first novel The Poppy War, The Dragon Republic confronts the spectre of imperialism even as it appears to de-emphasise its effects. Set in the fictional country of Nikara, a clear analogue of medieval China, it follows protagonist Rin in the aftermath of her decision to destroy the oppressive Federation of Mugen at the end of The Poppy War. Traumatised both by this decision and by the atrocities she witnessed during the Mugenese invasion, she and the shamanistic military unit she commands, the Cike, decide to join a military effort led by the warlord Vaisra to overthrow the Empress and bring democracy to Nikara. Rin hopes thereby to gain revenge on the Empress for her collaboration with the Mugenese. Vaisra, however, is being bankrolled by the Hesperians, this world’s version of white Europeans, who demand as the price of their support unrestricted access to Rin’s person, ostensibly for research purposes: the Hesperians believe that Rin’s shamanistic powers are a manifestation of Chaos, which, according to their uncompromising theology, must be stamped out in all its forms. For most of the novel the Hesperians appear to be minor, if annoying, participants in the grand political drama unfolding across Nikara, despite various indications to the contrary that crop up throughout the narrative; by the time it becomes apparent that they are behind vastly more of the novel’s political developments than anyone, including the reader, has realised, it is of course much too late.

The entire novel, then, is a lovely piece of authorial sleight-of-hand that enacts the ways in which white imperialism hides behind self-professedly noble intentions and disinterested philanthropy. Unfortunately, though, the very structure of the novel means that the Hesperians’ machinations largely take place off-page; while this does, importantly, centre Kuang’s non-Western characters, it also means that the novel’s focus lies mainly on the volatile political position Rin and the Cike find themselves in, and the military adventures they’re drawn into as they attempt to navigate it. Which, frankly, is not where my interest lies as a reader: it all feels rather grim, rather unrelentingly cynical, to me. It doesn’t help that Rin’s primary motivation throughout the novel is revenge: that cold-blooded, single-minded drive to get back at someone who has wronged you, personally, is not really an emotion I’m personally familiar with, and as a result I find it kind of hard to identify with characters whose arcs are powered by that urge.

A mismatch between book and reader, then. As I’ve said, I think the structure of The Dragon Republic is actually kind of masterful, and I’d love to have had more of that structural trickery. But, on the whole, this isn’t a novel that I’m going to feel inclined to read again.

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: Ring Shout

As mainstream SFF continues to reckon with its own colonial legacy, one author who’s receiving particular scrutiny is the early twentieth century horror author and notorious racist H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft’s brand of cosmic dread, which is partially characterised by a fear of monstrous embodiment (think of be-tentacled Cthulhu, or the shoggoths, essentially giant amorphous lumps of flesh the mere sight of which drives multiple characters mad), is inseparable from his bigotry: the horror we encounter in his work is all too often the horror of miscegenation, of being in proximity to an often racialised, monstrous Other.

And yet his influence on the genre is inescapable: not only have his works, which are now probably in the public domain and which Lovecraft himself always saw as fair game for transformative fan interpretation, inspired a plethora of directly imitative novels, short stories and games, his ideas and motifs are visible throughout modern fantasy, in everything from the incomprehensible, brutal physicality on display in many of China Mieville’s novels to the nameless, indifferent menace that lies beyond the Wall in George R.R. Martin’s fictional world of Westeros.

So: where, as SFF readers and writers, do we go from here? P. Djèlí Clark provides a possible answer in his 2020 novella Ring Shout. The book’s protagonist, Maryse Boudreaux, is a 1920s Black woman with a magical sword who hunts Ku Kluxes: alien horrors who look just like human Klansmen, until they don’t. These monsters, and the cosmic forces that control them, have a demonic plan: to use the power of white people’s hate to drag themselves into our world, deploying the racist film The Birth of a Nation as a tool to stoke up that hate.

Opposed to the forces of evil are Black cultural traditions: the magic generated by the titular ring shouts, which the Gullah woman Nana Jean distils into a liquid that Maryse and her comrades-in-arms use as protection against the Ku Kluxes. The ring shouts are also connected to the magic in Maryse’s sword, which houses the spirits of those who sold their fellows to white slavers in Africa, who are atoning for their actions by playing a part in destroying the Ku Kluxes.

Given the Ku Kluxes’ clear Lovecraftian antecedents, we can, I think, read this opposition as metatextual – especially given the novella’s explicit recognition of how pieces of media like The Birth of a Nation shape cultural attitudes. In this schema, then, the Ku Kluxes aren’t just inspired by Lovecraft’s works – they stand for them: the way that they use hate to boost their power is analogous to how Lovecraft’s racism provides the impetus for his cosmic horror. And on the opposite side we have a specifically Black mode of speculative fiction, one powered not by hate but by shared heritage and a shared cultural unity.

Doesn’t everyone love a bit of metatextuality? As a textual strategy, this is a small piece of genius: coopting the power of Lovecraft’s writing, including the bigotry that gives it that power, in order to reject it and its legacy utterly. The novella both benefits from Lovecraft’s legacy and repudiates it: charting a path forward, perhaps, for modern fantasy. Clark’s novel A Master of Djinn is up for a Hugo award this year; I’m looking forward to seeing what he does in it.

Review: Glamour in Glass

A few months ago, in my review of Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Relentless Moon, the second entry in her Lady Astronaut series, I characterised her work as: “competent”. It’s a characterisation that holds, I think, for her earlier novel Glamour in Glass, follow-up to her Regency fantasy romance Shades of Milk and Honey.

The novel’s set in an alternate version of the early nineteenth century in which “glamour”, the art of weaving illusions, is one of the “accomplishments” considered core to a marriageable gentlewoman’s repertoire. There are, however, also male glamourists, who, despite being seen as vaguely disreputable for specialising in an art that’s traditionally gendered female, are also the only ones permitted by society to practice it meaningfully, to get paid for doing it, to research new techniques in it, and to become authorities on its use and how it works. Its protagonist, Jane, is a gentlewoman, highly skilled at glamour, who’s married to a prominent male glamourist called Vincent. The pair are sent by the Prince Regent, for whom Vincent has completed work in the past, to Belgium, where tensions are rising as Napoleon pushes further into Europe.

The novel’s interests, then, are essentially feminist ones: the contested social status of glamour, as an activity that’s regarded as the preserve of women but also one that women are not allowed to specialise in, is intended to point up the double standards that have dogged women (and people who are perceived to be women) for most of history. Jane is at least as skilled a glamourist as her husband, but her gender prevents her from being recognised for her talent, or even being able to practice it in any sort of public way. Her plight is exacerbated by the fact that, fairly on in the novel, she becomes pregnant: performing glamour during pregnancy is dangerous for the foetus, meaning that Jane is not only socially but also physically incapable of partaking in the work she’s best at. Again, there’s clearly some commentary going on here about the ways in which women have historically been disadvantaged in their pursuit of meaningful achievement. Jane’s inability to perform glamour while pregnant mirrors the way in which pregnancy and birth have been used as excuses to hold women back in the workplace in more recent periods of history. The danger to Jane’s pregnancy is based in fact, not cultural prejudice, as an event later in the novel makes clear. But Regency cultural attitudes towards pregnancy as a thing that women are expected to undergo multiple times (Pride and Prejudice‘s Mrs Bennet has, remember, five daughters) – as something fundamental to the purpose of marriage itself – multiply that biological disadvantage, restricting women’s options even further.

Which is good analysis, as far as it goes; the problem is that it doesn’t go particularly far. It is, to be honest, fairly obvious that women’s choices were severely limited in the Regency period; I mean, Austen herself was pointing this out at the time. And Kowal isn’t really interested in delving any deeper into the gender politics of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, or into what women of the time thought about them: Jane is (apart from some notable exceptions, such as when she is shocked by a French woman’s very mild indiscretion) a thoroughly modern heroine, particularly in her attitudes towards the confinements of pregnancy and childbirth. Too, Kowal restricts her social critique to the plight of middle-class white women: while the servant class is marginally more visible than it is in Austen’s novels, there’s little exploration of how the patriarchy affects them; and there are no characters at all who are not white. What I’m trying to say is that these are all very safe choices Kowal is making; vaguely progressive without being very interesting.

This middle-of-the-road approach to storytelling makes itself known in the way Kowal structures her narrative, too. Much of the plot’s tensions arise from that age-old romcom trope of romantic leads failing, for one reason or another, to communicate effectively: this can be done well, of course, but here it’s just mildly enraging. And many of the plot’s twists are telegraphed quite obviously in advance, making for a read that’s a little…predictable, to say the least. Again, foreshadowing is something that’s very effective in the right hands, and Kowal’s aren’t exactly the wrong hands; it’s just that her construction lines, as it were, are very visible on the page. The choices that she’s making are exactly the ones that you’d expect a competent author who’s familiar with the tropes and structures that work well in her chosen genre to make.

These issues – the vaguely liberal but ultimately uninspired politics, the transparent plot-construction – are all things that get better in Kowal’s later work but that never entirely go away. For all that she’s currently a critical darling in SFF circles, a frequent presence on Hugo nomination lists at least, her work is very far from the best of what the genre has to offer. Readable, sure; entertaining, usually. But still: never better than competent.