Review: The Angel of the Crows

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

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

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

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

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

Notes on “The Hound of the Baskervilles”

Just some brief thoughts on Watermill on the Road’s touring production of The Hound of the Baskervilles, adapted from Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novel of the same name, which I saw in the garden of Stanton Harcourt village hall in Oxfordshire last August.

It was basically fine and I will always be here for gender-bent Sherlock Holmes, but it was nowhere near as witty as it thought it was and the denouement was poorly handled.

A cast of three, including two women, took on all the roles, hence Miss Holmes and Miss Watson. Funnily enough (in a way that’s not really funny at all), while this particular piece of gender-bending was not really played for laughs, the middle-class, middle-aged denizens of rural Oxfordshire who made up the majority of the audience found it simply hilarious when the cast’s single man played a woman and put on a silly voice: proof that we’ve not come anywhere near as far as we think we have when it comes to queer rights.

I can’t remember the specifics of the ending, but I do remember that none of us (“us” being me, the Bandersnatch and the Bandersnatch’s parents) thought that it made complete sense: crucial information seemed to have been cut for pacing. (Possibly it wasn’t clear where the dog had come from?) The Bandersnatch’s parents had seen the production at the Watermill itself, and said it had been altered, and not for the better, for the tour.

It had very little to say about the source text apart from obvious jokes – jokes that aimed for the slapstick end of the spectrum rather than anything else – and all in all felt like a very safe production of a well-known property; something guaranteed to get well-off white people back into theatres and do nothing else. Which is, I guess, fine. But I wouldn’t go and see it again.

NINE WORLDS 2017! Or, I Am Really Quite Proud Of Myself

So I went to the Nine Worlds geek fest convention for the second time over the weekend just gone. (At least, it was just gone when I started writing this post.) I went on my own, which I wasn’t quite expecting when I bought the ticket, and for this and other reasons it was a very different experience from last year. It was, in particular, far less terrifying than my first Nine Worlds – I feel like I got a lot more out of the con experience this year, and I’m proud of myself for doing a number of things that would have made me horribly anxious a year ago.

This is going to be a long, and quite personal, post. You have been warned.

Nine Worlds 2017!!

I arrived at the Novotel London West, in Hammersmith, on the Thursday night, after an extremely busy and stressful week at work (because, of course, it is fundamentally impossible to go on holiday without having a busy and stressful week at work beforehand). This being a deeply unhelpful state of mind to be in just before the emotional tour de force that is a three-day convention, I checked in, registered, and went straight to bed.

Friday: Mars One, the Mechanisms and More

Friday I wore Generic Steampunk, and received many compliments and an “Awesome Cosplay!” token, even though I wasn’t cosplaying anything. So that was lovely.

After the all-important meal that is breakfast, my first event of Friday morning was Studying Policy on Prevention of Terrorism in Education, a fascinating talk by PhD student and former teacher Megan Bettinson about the government requirement that schools promote “British values” – defined as democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and respect for and tolerance of different faiths. She pointed out that these terms are nowhere properly defined – which leads into worrying situations like fracking protestors being arrested under anti-terrorism laws because they’re breaking the rule of law. As someone who’s concerned about the current rhetoric around terrorism in Britain, I found this talk eye-opening and fascinating, and it was probably one of my favourite of the con. And I also did a thing I was proud of: I raised my hand and contributed to a discussion at the beginning of the talk about what the audience thought “British values” were. Last year I didn’t dare put my hand up in anything, and if I had it would only have been with much trepidation.

Next (after a quick chat with one of my TolkSoc friends who I saw across the corridor) was Undercover Geek: How to do Stealth Cosplay, another favourite: a talk about cosplaying in real life situations where full cosplay would be inappropriate. So, for instance, using block colours to evoke Disney characters or Star Trek redshirts, or wearing Deathly Hallows earrings at work. It wasn’t a particularly content-heavy session, but it turned into a bit of a conversation with the audience, and raised some interesting points about in-group identification and belonging. Stealth cosplay will definitely be something that I do! (I have already asked my sister for stealth cosplay items for my birthday in a couple of weeks…)

I grabbed a swift sandwich lunch at one of the (quite eye-wateringly expensive) hotel outlets before heading off to Classical Monsters in Popular Culture – a panel looking at the reception of classical monsters, mostly in films and TV. It started off well: Dr Liz Gloyn talked lucidly and intelligently about monster theory, which says that monsters are manifestations of what we worry about as a society, and then asked why, in that case, we’re still using monsters thought up in a very different time period in modern media.

Dr Amanda Potter followed this up by describing a couple of modern approaches to classical monsters: rationalisation (the Doctor Who model, which recasts monsters as aliens who have strange powers because of Science); making them sympathetic (mentioning the way that Atlantis’ Medusa tells Hercules to cut off her head and use it as a weapon – which to Potter makes her a heroine of sorts, though to me it reads “objectification”); and eroticising them. I wanted to know a bit more about why it’s important to modern creators to defuse classical monsters in these ways, and what it says about us as a society that these are the ways we choose to do it. That was my general impression of the panel: they touched on a number of topics without really addressing any of them quite adequately, and didn’t manage to come to any kind of thesis by the end.

It turned out that several of my TolkSoc friends had also attended this panel, so we all had a bit of a debrief (I had crisps; they had lunch), and then I headed off to Mars: The Journey of a Lifetime with one of them. This was a talk by Hannah Earnshaw, a Mars One candidate.

If you’ve not heard of it, Mars One is (probably) equal parts scam, publicity stunt and complete fucking lunacy. There is an entire post to be written about the fantasy that is Mars One; I direct you to this rather good one. In a nutshell, though, Mars One says they are going to send a crew of four on a one-way trip to Mars, for just $6bn, in 2032. Pretty much everyone else says they don’t have the technology, the funding, the people or the ability to do it. A group of PhD students from MIT found that, under its current plan, the first crew member would die within 68 days of landing on Mars, if they ever made it there in the first place.

I knew all this before I went to Earnshaw’s talk; but I hoped they might talk about what moves a person to sign up to leave Earth forever, to head out into the unknown. Instead, they reeled off what sounded suspiciously like pre-formed corporate drivel. We spent a good deal of the talk alternately sniggering and being bored.

Then there were the questions, which made it abundantly clear what kind of organisation Mars One is. There were many questions, about tiny details like, oh, why Mars One hasn’t published any scientific papers into its methods (because America won’t let them, apparently, which, what?), whether there’ll be a legal system on Mars (“we might have to have a sponsor country” – OK, that’s not a terrible answer, but it was clear that Mars One doesn’t have a plan in mind), and what’s going to happen about sex in a Mars colony. (Earnshaw implied that they wouldn’t want to raise children on Mars for at least a couple of decades after the landing, at which point, as my TolkSoc friend pointed out, the colonists would be about fifty years old.) I asked why Mars One has recruited members of the public as colonists rather than, say, the kind of people at NASA who have trained for a zillion years and have astrophysics PhDs. The answer? In a nutshell, Mars should belong to everybody.

OK, this is not the London Marathon, this is GOING TO MARS. There is a very real risk of death; and if the mission goes horribly wrong, there’s also a risk that no-one else will ever dare to try it again. This is not a place for rank amateurs and random sci-fi readers.

Moving on. The next panel I went to was Security for Beginners, whose description kind of intrigued me (“cyber/crypto security for activists and everyone else as well…things we can do for ourselves, so we can be ourselves online”). It was more techy than I was expecting (it says “beginners” right there in the title), and began with a request that nobody incriminate themselves (which, whoa), but touched on some interesting points about whether our real identity is the one online or the one IRL.

Straight after that I went to an RPG run by Rusty Quill called Zero Void, in which we (“we” being me and five strangers) were all space criminals fresh from a heist trying to obtain by nefarious means enough fuel to escape the Imperial forces. We ran into some space zombies and died in the end, but we had fun along the way, not least because the GM was Jonny D’Ville from THE ACTUAL MECHANISMS and I quietly fangirled for about three hours. What even is air.

Can I also just stop and emphasise that I spent three hours role-playing with some complete strangers. Again, that’s a thing that I’m enormously proud of myself for doing.

After the RPG – which finished at 9pm, in the middle of one of the panel slots – I went and ate an oily and not brilliant curry in the hotel lounge bar, and read Affinity by Sarah Waters until some people I knew turned up, and I ended up chatting to someone I’d never met (another point!) about Garth Nix and sexism in fantasy. Then we went to the Friday Nite Lite disco, which was fun and I knew some songs, but I was tired and went to bed reasonably early. (About midnight, I think.)

Saturday: Cosplay, Communism and Cabaret

Saturday was cosplay day! I woke up about an hour early, I was so excited, and ended up dancing around the room to the soundtracks from Sunless Sea and Fallen London. Because that, of course, was my cosplay: I had an Exceptional Hat, and a Bejewelled Cane (which featured about 240 plastic jewels I’d stuck on myself, by hand), and a long black opera coat, and here is a picture:

I received many “Awesome Cosplay!” tokens, though I also kept handing them out, so I never had enough on me to cash them in for a prize. Everyone loved my hat. (I took a whole suitcase full of hats to Nine Worlds.)

OK, let’s talk about the actual day. The first talk I went to was How to Write a Location You Can’t Go To, by urban fantasy author Melissa F. Olson. The talk itself was excellent: Olson gave a well-structured presentation covering not only how to write about somewhere you can’t visit but also what to do if you do manage to visit the place where you want to set your novel. Tips for writing about somewhere you can’t visit (which was the bit I was interested in: I’m writing a novel set in Crete in the mythology of the Greek gods, and also a short story set on the planet Trappist-1b) included finding someone who does live there who’s happy to answer random questions and to act as a beta reader, and looking at the local library’s internet presence to find out what the community there cares about. However, I felt she didn’t really know her audience very well, and that was particularly apparent when someone asked about how they should write about Mars, which no-one can go to (no, not even Mars One). She indicated that you’d have a lot more freedom to write about Mars, “because who’s going to tell you you’re wrong?”

Um. The many members of the geek community who are academics and scientists, maybe?

Next I went to Representations of the City in SFF, which currently ties for my favourite panel of the con: the panellists talked about ideas of the relationship between space and morality, which is exactly the kind of concept involved in the Grand Thesis I am constructing in my head about Gothic fiction and its haunted castles. The panel touched on Le Corbusier’s Modernist theories about purging antiques from our domestic lives so we become healthier and more productive – architecture as a way of creating better, more integrated, more economic citizens. Towards the end, they started talking about why utopian aspirations for architecture get talked about less than dystopian ones, and about the politics of high-rises – particularly interesting and pertinent in the wake of the Grenfell fire. I would really like to see another panel like this next year.

I met one of my TolkSoc friends there, so we had a chat about how much we enjoyed the panel, and found some of our other TolkSoc friends, and went to grab a quick sandwich with them before the next event, which for me was Cosplayers: Larp! I’ve never done any larping before; I’d like to say that this session encouraged me to do more. Unfortunately, I definitely think it could have done with  a bit more direction – the scenario was just, “these characters meet in a bar. Go.” Like, I know coming up with a proper campaign would be difficult without knowing which characters were going to turn up, but as it was a lot of people seemed to melt away throughout the session, and the handful of us left ended up having awkward, mock-drunken conversations about how depressed all our characters were. (Me: “We never see the sky in Fallen London! Never!”) I think I wanted the larping to be a bit more live action.

I found my TolkSoc friends again and we went to Dumbledore – Good or Evil?, a panel debate which one of my Oxford friends was taking part in. I’m not really particularly interested in taking Dumbledore seriously as a real person, just because so many of his decisions and actions are clearly a function of his role as headmaster of an upper-middle-class English boarding school, but for me the panel was fun and light and snarky and questioned some of the ideological bases of Rowling’s books, which is always good. As a serious debate it didn’t work too well – it failed, for instance, to define what “good” and “evil” actually were – but taking it for what it was, I enjoyed it.

Next we went to Poor Life Choices: A live choose your own adventure, in which the audience had to save the world by basically assembling an Avengers team. The choices were made by the simple expedient of the performer giving everyone a raffle ticket and pulling a number from a hat each time the script called for a choice to be made. I made a winning choice close to the end of the session which meant we collected Lucifer, so that was awesome! Overall the session was funny, the performer James Webster animated (though he spoke perhaps a little too fast at times), and the script at times poetic without being parodic or over-flown – a difficult balance to achieve, I think.

Everyone wandered off at this point, so I had a hot dog at one of the hotel outlets (yay for excellent food choices at conventions!). I skipped the next session in favour of a glass of wine and Affinity in the bar, and then we all went to the Bifrost Cabaret! This was mostly excellent: I can never remember the names of acts, but there was a balloon animal magician who was very funny, a singer-songwriter who sang the song about rubbish feminists rescuing Rapunzel that I just cannot find on the internet anywhere and which I heard and liked last year as well (I think the singer was Alice Nicholls, but the song doesn’t seem to be on her Bandcamp), and someone reciting their mildly filthy but also rather sweet poetry. (Normally I am of the opinion that there is almost no excuse for reciting your own poetry on stage, but there’s an exception to every rule.) We just about managed to escape MC Skywalker, who we saw last year rapping incomprehensibly about Star Wars, and all-out ran from the last act of the second half, which seemed to consist entirely of leading unsuspecting members of the audience up onto the stage to dance, which, nope. We all noped.

There was a brief space between the cabaret and the Bifrost disco; I ended up following my TolkSoc friends to the hotel room where one of their friends was staying (another scary thing I did!) and drinking wine out of plastic cups and chatting.

The disco itself was, sadly, a disappointment: we missed the early part of it (but isn’t this standard disco practice?), so it’s quite possible we missed the geekier songs, but I only knew about three songs in the whole night, and everyone else said the same thing. Mainly it was techno/heavy metal type stuff which you can’t really dance to and which seems to exist solely to assault your ears. We kept going back to see if the music was getting any better, but it didn’t. So then I chatted until 3:30am in the bar about Steven Moffat, and that was fun.

Sunday: BookTube, Blanket Forts and Brilliant Hats

Four hours’ sleep later, it was the last day of Nine Worlds. (Sad face.) I was in Low-Key Steampunk, with another hat that also garnered compliments. My first panel, at the unearthly time of 10am (remember: four hours’ sleep), was BookTube – Reviewing Books in the 21st Century, which was really geared towards people looking to start a BookTube channel – i.e, not me. (I have this blog!) Nevertheless, it was interesting to hear that none of the panellists really had any technical equipment when they started; and one of them (who I met on Friday night) worked for a publishing house, so it was interesting to hear from her perspective.

Next, for me, was Protocols for the education of young witches and wizards, in which Alison Baker discussed her research into approaches to education in the Harry Potter, Bartimaeus and Tiffany Aching series. (I went just for Tiffany Aching, naturally.) Like the Classical Monsters panel on Friday, this started off promisingly, with Baker looking at the different teaching styles of Hogwarts teachers (basically, Lupin is the only good teacher at Hogwarts. Harry is also a good teacher, apparently), but tailed off into description rather than analysis. She suggested of the Discworld series that education that doesn’t teach people to be good members of the community – in other words, the education delivered at Unseen University – is portrayed as useless and sterile. I found myself pushing back against this idea, actually: while Pratchett clearly has a lot less respect for the wizards of Unseen than he does for the self-taught witches, I also feel that part of Pratchett’s point in the Discworld series is that everyone has a place in society and a way of contributing to it. The wizards, for example, do save the Disc on at least one occasion (Reaper Man, I think?) and assist in saving it, however cack-handedly, in other books. (Going Postal, Hogfather, The Last Hero.) It’s when people don’t find a place for themselves that things go wrong. Obviously that kind of analysis wasn’t really in the scope of Baker’s talk, but I felt she could have said more about the larger societies depicted in each series.

Next was the session I was probably most looking forward to in the whole convention: Social Gaming with the Haberdashery Collective, basically an hour of playing silly party games like lemon jousting (now a stalwart at TolkSoc meetings), Ninja – where you strike your best ninja poses in an effort to hit the back of your neighbour’s hand, putting them out of the game – and Jedi Training, which involves stabbing people with a foam sword. It was brilliant fun and I lost all the games and it was exactly the right time in the convention to do it.

One of my TolkSoc friends was there and afterwards we went off to Blanket Fort Construction 101, where we met other TolkSoc people and also someone I half-know from the LOTNA meetup group, which is awkward because I only went to LOTNA a few times. We supported the construction of a giant blanket fort, although there was something of a too-many-cooks issue, and then we all hid in the blanket fort and I found out that one of my TolkSoc friends – who I didn’t know very well before Nine Worlds – listens to Paul Shapera. I have never met anyone else who listens to Paul Shapera (independently, anyway – I made the Circumlocutor listen to it once), so that was awesome.

Then we all went to my final event of the con: Playing with Pride: LGBT Relationships in Gaming. This was a filmmaker presenting his footage of queer gamers across America, and some in Europe, talking about their experiences trying to reconcile queer culture with geek culture. This was…emotional: many of the stories, of rejection and disenfranchisement, were sad, but there were also causes for hope, too, as representation in gaming improves. It was very worth going to, and encapsulated the spirit of Nine Worlds – a lovely note to end the con on.

I didn’t leave straight away: we went for dinner at Bill’s, then sat in the bar playing the card game Man Bites Dog. I was vaguely hoping to go to the Rock Club at the End of the Universe, but I couldn’t get the internet to tell me when the last underground train left Hammersmith, which worried me; so I left around 10pm. And that was the end of Nine Worlds.

It was a brilliant, tiring, wonderful few days, in a place that really feels like a community, among queer geeks. I always felt I could be myself there; I had conversations about things I loved; I met interesting people; I never wanted to leave. It’s such a colourful, kind place – inclusive and welcoming – and I’m already planning for next year!

Sherlock Review: The Six Thatchers

This review contains spoilers.

I know I bang on about sexism a lot, and sometimes I do wonder if I’m being truthful in my criticism: truthful to my personal experience of the text, rather than received opinion about it garnered from my pretty universally left-leaning Internet lurking-places.

I mention this here because I loved the first two series of Sherlock with a fervent devotion: it was my Favourite Ever Show for at least a couple of years.

Having watched the first episode of series 4, though, marred by the debacle that was last year’s Abominable Bride and by seven years of Moffat’s writing for Doctor Who and by his general faint air of contempt for women, QUILTBAG folks and fans, I’m struggling to remember just what I liked about it. Does this mean I’m privileging my distaste for the creator’s politics over my actual experience of the text?

The Six Thatchers sees Sherlock, restored to 221b Baker Street after the bizarrities of His Last Vow, investigating a bizarre pattern of crimes across London: at each crime scene, a bust of Margaret Thatcher has been smashed. Sherlock is convinced it’s a posthumous game of Moriarty’s: “It’s too baroque,” Sherlock says, not inaccurately. About halfway through, though, he has a revelation:

“This is about Mary [John Watson’s ex-spy wife]!”

You can almost hear Moffat going, “This is an episode about a woman! Nobody will ever spot that!”

A couple of scenes later:

“I was so convinced it was Moriarty I couldn’t see what was right under my nose.”

Conveniently (and ironically, given Moffat’s evident love of self-referentiality) these three quotes pretty much sum up what I think annoyed me about the episode.

We’ll take the thorny sexism issue first.

This Is (Not) About Mary!

This is what pisses me off about Moffat’s writing of women, a problem that also manifests itself in his writing for Doctor Who: the stories he writes for women are not actually about them. I am sure Moffat thinks that Mary, an ex-killer with an intelligence almost to match Sherlock’s own, is a strong female character. But look closely: though The Six Thatchers delves into Mary’s secret past, though it sees her face-to-face with an old friend who was once dearer than family, though it looks at her marriage and watches her sob out her last words, it is not about her.

It’s about Ajay, the PTSD sufferer wrenched by betrayal who tries to kill her.

It’s about her husband John and his boredom in their marriage.

It’s about Sherlock and his vow to protect the Watsons, Come What May.

Do we get to see Mary’s feelings about the friends she lost? No; Mary’s past only affects her insomuch as it’s plot-convenient. Do we get to see her being friends with Sherlock? No, not really, because she’s at home minding the baby more often than not.

The only glimpses we get into her actual inner life are two sickening monologues in which she rambles on and on and on about how much she loves John. One is a letter, left behind as she flees her family to save them from the shadow of the past; we see not her face as she writes it but John’s as he reads it. The second is her death-speech (like in a bad melodrama, nobody can die in a Moffat production without reading out a manifesto about their life): “You gave me everything I could have ever wanted,” she coughs out bravely, “Being Mary Watson was the only life worth living.”


This fiercely independent, intelligent woman can’t even be granted a death of her own (Clara Oswald much?); it’s all about her husband, who, I might add, seems pretty bloody grumpy about her efforts to save her family – “Lies, all lies!” – for someone who’s also an ex-soldier and presumably has some skeletons in the closet of his own.


Just a thought before I move on: what would Mary be doing if she hadn’t met John?

“It’s too baroque”

To return to my questions about whether I’m being fair to the text, I think the reason I didn’t enjoy the episode – as opposed to the reasons why it’s a sexist episode – is a structural one. The first two series of Sherlock are explicitly mystery stories (apart from perhaps The Reichenbach Fall), fast-paced, snappy, and importantly following a really familiar structure, viz., the detective story, that allows us to keep up when Sherlock talks too fast and/or pulls solutions out of his ass (which I suspect happens more often than I cared to notice). The latter ones have tried to be character stories first and foremost, and for me it’s becoming abundantly clear that this isn’t a show set up to talk successfully about character. It wants to be twisty and fast-paced and surprising and reveal shocking bits of backstory, with the result that the plots are ever more far-fetched and, yes, baroque, and ever less able to pay off on that far-fetched-ness; and the characterisation is ever less consistent and believable, and ever more offensive.

In other words: it’s because this episode is (Not) About Mary that I was bored by it. The early episodes have more than their fair share of sexism, racism and homophobia; it’s just that they’re also quite exciting. The latter doesn’t make the former OK, of course, but it does make it possible for me to enjoy watching them. Whereas things like The Six Thatchers just make me want to fling my laptop out the window.

Review: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

Albus Dumbledore

It’s Tournament of Books time! If you’ve never heard of the ToB and you like books, can I suggest you go check it out immediately? It’s possibly the most exciting internet event I have yet come across, and it introduced me to readable literary criticism, and if that isn’t a good enough recommendation then I don’t know what is.

With that excitement over with: let’s get cracking, dear reader.

Harry-Potter-And-The-Chamber-Of-Secrets_novelI’m re-reading Harry Potter this year because the Book Smugglers are doing so, and it seemed like a good idea to get back in contact with the texts themselves, rather than this shared cultural idea we all have about what is now more an entertainment franchise than anything else.

I reviewed Philosopher a couple of years ago on the blog, and I didn’t really feel I had too much to say about it this time around, so here we are with Chamber of Secrets.

A brief plot summary for those of you who have miraculously escaped the Potterverse. All is not well at Hogwarts School, as a spate of strange attacks attributed to the mysterious and dreadful bogey the Heir of Slytherin terrorises the students and staff, and Harry Potter, boy wizard, hears disembodied voices in the wall. Who is the Heir of Slytherin? What is it that is muttering imprecations of violence in the walls? And can Harry and his friends solve the mystery of the Chamber of Secrets before the school is closed?

Chamber of Secrets is at its heart a tale about prejudice (and, by analogy, racism). Salazar Slytherin, the founder of one of the school’s four houses, was a notorious proponent of the idea that only pure-blood witches and wizards should be able to attend the school, and that so-called Muggle-borns (witches and wizards born to non-magical parents) should be shunned. The attacks at the school are all on Muggle-borns or Squibs (pure-blood witches and wizards who can’t do magic), and the book explores in some detail the various systems of prejudice in place throughout the wizarding world.

One of the things that I forgot about the novel was just how menacing it is: “The Chamber of Secrets has been opened. Enemies of the Heir, beware.” Written in blood (well, actually, red paint, but we don’t know that yet) on the wall above a comatose cat. That’s horror-film stuff right there. It’s a very effective way of registering the horror of prejudice, I think: it turns the heimlich unheimlich, the familiar strange and awful, working from within to attack (because it’s always already latent in) the structures of regularity and order and Civilised Behaviour we construct around us. (The Chamber of Secrets, centuries old, is said to have been constructed in the castle right at its very beginnings.) In Chamber of Secrets, Hogwarts, Harry’s escape from the abuse he suffers at the hands of his Muggle aunt and uncle, turns upon itself, its own miraculous and homely architecture generating monsters and buried secrets, its own student body attacking itself. As the attacks against Muggle-borns worsen and increase, the society within the castle begins to freeze up: students lose much of their freedom, shepherded between classes by teachers, and hysteria breaks out, youngsters flinging accusations back and forth. It’s a particularly well-judged piece of symbolism that those attacked by the Heir of Slytherin are Petrified: literally, frozen, made voiceless, their agency stolen away; made irrelevant by prejudice.

Unfortunately, this subtle piece of allegorisation clashes with Rowling’s elaboration of the book’s moral message, which is that individuals should be judged by their choices, not by what is innate to them (be that their parentage, their ability to talk to snakes, their social status, etc.). Abstractly, of course, this is a theme which meshes perfectly with a tale about prejudice and racism; but Rowling embodies it as Harry’s inward struggle against what he thinks of as his innate Slytherin-ness, a struggle brought to a head by his encounter with Tom Riddle, the ghost of the series’ Dark Lord, Voldemort. Like Harry, Tom is an orphan who hates the Muggle world; like Harry, Tom speaks Parselmouth, the language of snakes. Tom functions, effectively, as Harry’s double, the point supposedly being that Tom is what Harry might have become. (I’m not going to go into the fact that it’s practically impossible to see Harry choosing to side with the person who killed his parents.) This metaplot essentially dramatises the hero’s struggle with the Dark Side of his personality.

Again, this is a perfectly fine literary strategy, if a little hackneyed by now, except that its very interiority sets up interference patterns with the social focus of the book’s discussion of racism. What it means in practice is that the culminating confrontation between hero and villain, the confrontation which saves all the victims and potential victims of the prejudice that Tom has unleashed upon the school, occurs not between perpetrator and victim, between prejudiced and prejudicee, but between privileged-and-prejudiced-person and privileged-and-unprejudiced person. Harry is pure-blood; the Muggle-borns aren’t allowed to fight for themselves (the book is particularly hard on Hermione, Harry’s best friend, who is both Muggle-born and, being female, a member of an actual real-life minority; she does all the intellectual hard work before literally being fridged so that Harry can go on and save her), which makes Harry’s defeat of Tom, prejudice incarnate, uncomfortably reminiscent of Sherlock’s realisation that perhaps feminists have a point in The Abominable Bride. To put it another way: while the racism storyline is predicated on difference, the inner struggle storyline is predicated on sameness, and the two sit uneasily beside each other.

I still think Chamber of Secrets is a hugely enjoyable book: I’d genuinely forgotten how good Rowling is at plotting and pacing, and how saturated the books are in authentic detail without feeling over-determined. I just think – well, a lot of fans proffer the books’ depiction of racism as evidence of its literary worth, and, actually, when you look hard at this book, at least, it’s not wholly unproblematic.

Sherlock Review: The Abominable Bride

“I’m your housekeeper, not a plot device!”

Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss

Sorry, Mrs Hudson: as it turns out, you are a plot device. You and ALL WOMEN EVER.

I just spent the last couple of hours trying to write a serious review of The Abominable Bride. It was quite good, actually. I was going to argue that the episode’s ridiculous metafictional reversals were part of an attempt on the writers’ part to discredit Conan Doyle’s body of work as no longer relevant and, of course, suggest their own as alternative.

But my heart wasn’t really in it. The Abominable Bride may be the worst thing I have ever seen on television, and if there is any coherent sense to be made out of it I don’t have the time or energy to tease it painstakingly out. I don’t think it deserves that kind of attention, much less rewards it.

The episode begins as a horribly campy Victorian tale featuring Our Heroes as they attempt to solve the case of a woman who apparently kills herself and then returns to murder her husband. This is a terrible idea. Cumberbatch and Freeman make a fantastic modern-day Holmes and Watson, but only indifferent Victorian ones, and you’re much better off watching Jeremy Brett in those interminable ITV episodes of Sherlock Holmes if Victoriana is what you’re after. The case itself is just awful, tedious watching: a Dr Hooper so transparently female that Sherlock must be blind not to see it, a not-very-scary ghost who we know from the word go is absolutely not going to be a ghost, which makes the transports of fear that Our Heroes indulge in over-the-top and ridiculous, a Mycroft who makes himself mordibly obese for a bet (because that’s funny, right?), a pointless conversation between Sherlock and Watson about whether Sherlock has ever you-knowed which fails to establish anything we didn’t know already.

That’s before we reach the frankly offensive denouement, when it transpires that the bride is actually a group of suffragists punishing abusive husbands by going out and murdering them. Moffat and Gatiss are clearly trying to prove their feminist credentials in the face of profound disagreement from many, many people, and it fails spectacularly when Sherlock proudly tells all the women that yes! the mighty Holmes agrees with their cause! go forth and multiply!

Thanks, Moffat/Gatiss/Holmes, but I don’t actually need you to validate my feminist rage, and nor does anyone else. That’s sort of the point.

Also, pro tip: it doesn’t really help your cause when you dress your feminists like members of the Klu Klux Klan.

But this is just not bad enough for Moffat and Gatiss; they have to go a step further:

“And he woke up and it was all a dream.”

Sherlock, it turns out, is working out a hundred-year-old case in his mind palace (which is swiftly becoming the most irritating way of representing abstract thought processes ever devised, and by the way real mind palaces do not work like that) in order to help him work out how Moriarty has come back from the dead to threaten England. The episode dips in and out of dream and reality for about half an hour, the net result of which is Sherlock realising that Moriarty is dead but has a lot of friends, which we already knew anyway. There’s also a dream-confrontation at the Reichenbach Falls which is probably supposed to reveal the deepest depths of Sherlock’s demons but actually just tells us that he really, really hates Moriarty, which, let’s see, oh, yes, we knew already.

There was more, but to be honest by this point I had given up the will to live.

My issue with all of this isn’t the dream-device per se, which can in the right hands be used to great effect; it’s that none of it feels very significant. It’s just showing off. It isn’t clever, or experimental, or bold; it’s a pair of showrunners who have created a very successful series not being accountable to anyone, and just writing whatever the hell they like because why not?

I sincerely hope the upcoming series won’t be more of this, because it’s just boring. Boring, and bad.

Doctor Who Review: The Husbands of River Song

“It’s like loving the sunset. You don’t expect the sunset to love you back.”

River Song

In the by-now-ubiquitous Doctor Who Christmas Day special, the Doctor meets up with his old pal/wife (and daughter of bygone companions Amy and Rory Pond) River Song, caught up in an audacious plan to steal a diamond from the murderous King Hydroflax involving, well, marriage. (Hence the title.)

It’s a troubling story which continues the last series’ overall trend of subordinating and fridging characters with marginal identities to Moffat’s monolithic Doctor-god. Moffat has form for writing interesting and transgressive female characters who ultimately get undermined by male counterparts: the transgender Missy, chased out of a hitherto fertile storyline about moral ambivalence for being jealous of the Other Woman Clara in The Witch’s Familiar; “I-don’t-even-want-a-husband” Me, reduced to the Doctor’s cosmic housekeeper in The Woman Who Lived (although, it has to be said, redeemed somewhat in Hell Bent); Sherlock‘s Irene Adler, originally the only woman who ever beat Sherlock Holmes, rewritten as a lesbian who turns straight for Sherlock and is ultimately outwitted and humiliated by him. The Husbands of River Song continues the trend: the polyamorous, independent and deeply feminist River reveals that, in fact, she only has One True Love, who is, of course, the Doctor.

If it were only that, well, it would be irritating. But Moffat humiliates River by implication by having her declaim her love in high romantic fashion, all unknowing, while the Doctor is standing next to her. She likens him to the sunset, to the stars; most importantly, she notes that the Doctor doesn’t love her back, because he’s not “that small, that ordinary”.

By implication, River, the kickass archaeologist with the sonic trowel, the daughter of Amy and Rory, half-Time Lord, time traveller, the woman who carved “hello, sweetie” in the oldest rock in the universe – she is “small”, and she is “ordinary”. We are supposed to believe that this articulate, arrogant woman would really say that of herself – and, furthermore, can’t recognise, can’t even admit the possibility of recognising, the supposed love of her life right next to her.

What’s so frustrating about this is that without the stupid romantic storyline which Moffat seems to be, excuse me, in love with (before River there was Clara, and before Clara it was Amy, and why is it always women that the Doctor makes “friends” with?) The Husbands of River Song could have been a good episode. We might have had the Doctor and River romping through the universe as equals, sparks flying, sonic devices squawking, spaceships crashing. There could even have been some light flirting.

Instead, we have demeaning storyline after demeaning storyline, with the Doctor reigning triumphant over everyone.


Silent Witness: Protection Pt 2

“Science doesn’t lie. People do.”

Silent Witness

Ah, Silent Witness. The show that proves time and time again that there is a difference between thoughtful, intelligent telly and telly you actually want to watch.

See, Silent Witness is continuing the streak of excellence that began with the Falling Angels serial. The second part of Protection follows up on the first part’s discussion of child protection – “protection”, of course, having a spectrum of meanings – with depth and sensitivity and a refusal to allow the kind of simple good/evil categorisation that detective dramas have a tendency to fall into. As in Falling Angels, by far the best character study here is that of a secondary character (the forensics team, it seems, are gradually being relegated to the background, mere framing devices for the story): Louise Marsh, child protection officer, burdened with the responsibility of deciding the difference between accident and bad parenting. Actress Claudie Blakley’s distinction between professional façade and personal struggle, often a transition effected in seconds, is particularly striking – in fact, this detailed character work is sharply at odds with the very one-note characterisation of several members of the forensics team, most notably the apparently unmoving Clarissa. And though the separate plots don’t actually converge as I thought they would, the thematic unity they provide is satisfying without being glib.

There’s no denying, then, that Silent Witness is good television. But, dear gods, it’s depressing. Although there is sort-of a happy ending, there’s also rape, paedophilia, suicide, teenage pregnancy, parents who lose their children, all of which tends to dampen one’s lunchtime somewhat. I know it’s disingenuous to complain that things like Death in Paradise are silly and then turn my nose up at serious shows like this, but…


Can we just have Sherlock back, please? That would solve all my problems. Thank you.

A Few More of My Favourite Things

“For one voyage to begin, another voyage must come to an end, sort of.”

David Mitchell

It’s New Year. Again. (How can it be New Year already?) Which means that it’s time for a round-up post, this year for the first time featuring The English Student’s Reading Stats. Because I have become obsessed with spreadsheets.

Anyway, first things first.

The English Student’s Favourite Things of 2014

(As always, these are all things reviewed in 2014, not necessarily published or released in 2014.)

  • TV: Sherlock: His Last Vow. The only piece of television this year to have turned me into a reviewerly ball of incoherency. Gods I love Sherlock.
  • Film: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. A teensy-weensy bit of a cheat, since this film isn’t new to me; but, come on. It’s Tolkien filmed just the way it should be. And it is perfect.
  • Book: House of Leaves – Mark Z. Danielewski. I read this all the way back in January, and though I have read excellent books since then, none of them has quite measured up to the daring horror of House of Leaves, its deeply intellectual creepiness and its compulsive dark.
  • Misc: Good Omens. The radio adaptation of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s darkly funny apocalypse novel was delightful and respectful and All Good Things.

The English Student’s Reading Stats

(Hooray! Spreadsheets!)

  • In 2014 I read 71 books – 11 more than last year.
  • The longest was Fanny Burney’s Camilla, at 956 pages; the shortest was Mark Forsyth’s The Unknown Unknown, at just 23. Overall, I’ve read 28,105 pages.
  • My average rating this year for books was 3.5/5 – either it’s been a particularly good year or I am generous with star ratings. I don’t know because I didn’t have a spreadsheet last year.
  • The oldest book I’ve read – that is, the one that was first published longest ago – was Malory’s Complete Works, from 1485. The average age of the books I’ve read this year is surprisingly old – 70 years.
  • Genre: I’ve read 28 fantasy novels (39%) and 11 science fiction (15%). The rest of it falls into poetry, drama, non-fiction and a number of blurred categories like “contemporary” and “literary”.
  • I’ve read 4 middle-grade books this year (5%), 22 YA (31%), and 44 adult (62%).
  • I bought about half of the books I read this year.
  • The most common reason for my reading a book was for university.
  • 18 of the books I read this year were re-reads – that’s just under 25%, which is ridiculous. I reviewed 58 books – 82% – on this blog. (This is depressingly low, numerically and percentagely. I Must Try Harder next year.)
  • Just 22 (31%) of the books I read this year were by women – although six of them appeared in my top ten favourite books of 2014. This proves, obviously, that women are better at writing books.

So, goals for next year: re-read less; read more books by women; review more books; and, obviously, read more books. And if I can do all that, then pigs will fly.

Happy 2015, Constant Reader!

Scott and Bailey: Damaged

“There is nothing so unnatural as the commonplace.”

Arthur Conan Doyle

It’s episode three of Scott and Bailey Series 4 (I’m going off Wikipedia here, though, so don’t take my word for it), and Rachel’s struggling with her new promotion. The team’s investigating the death of Rich Hutchings, the suspected victim of a homophobic attack, and Rachel’s also trying to deal with her mother, who has become involved with a known domestic abuser. (Kudos to Tracie Bennett, who’s endearingly cringing as Mother Sharon.) The episode deals a sharp lesson in professional competence, as Rachel has to admit that she’s missed a crucial piece of evidence through not checking her messages in front of the team, and her superior gives her a Bad Look worthy of Mary Berry. “Deal with your mother on your own time,” she says sharply.

If I’m honest, I can’t remember the details of the mystery, and I don’t particularly care that much. It’s the method that interests me: there’s very little of the high-flown melodrama that characterises plenty of Murder Mysteries. Even the criminal interviews are more like counselling sessions – “How did that make you feel?” is a question that gets asked with inordinate frequency. At no point does any officer slam their hand upon the table and demand a confession. Superior officer DCI Gill Murray stresses the importance of precision and accuracy over “copper’s intuition”, and so the investigation is – meticulous. Detailed. Thorough. But, and this is important, still quite interesting for all that.

The lesson of Scott and Bailey? Murder Mysteries don’t have to be unrealistic to be watchable. Of course, the most interesting thing about Scott and Bailey may not be its inherent interest but the fact that it is different. Perhaps. But with four seasons under its belt, it’s surely doing something right.