Review: Winterkeep

WinterkeepPublished in January this year, Kristin Cashore’s Winterkeep marks her return to the acclaimed Graceling Realms series, a run of high fantasy YA novels dealing with themes of parental abuse, coercive control and personal agency. This latest outing is a departure in terms of tone, setting and structure, and although on the whole I enjoyed it, that enjoyment was despite its many quirks rather than because of them.

The people of the Graceling Realms have recently discovered a new continent, the land of Torla, and have opened up trade with the nearest nation on that continent, Winterkeep. When a delegation from the Monsean Queen Bitterblue (who we saw struggling with the legacy of her monstrous father Leck in Bitterblue, the previous novel in the series) goes missing, Bitterblue and her retinue go themselves to Winterkeep to find out what’s going on. Their story is interwoven with that of the young woman Lovisa, daughter of two powerful Winterkeep politicians, who is slowly waking up to the emotional harm her parents have done to her and her younger brothers.

It’s hard to summarise beyond that simply because there’s so much going on here. This is the first Graceling Realms novel to feature multiple points of view: whereas previous outings in the series focused narrowly on the emotional journey of a single character, allowing Cashore to explore their coming-of-ages in great depth, Winterkeep takes a broader approach, attempting to draw its conclusions from multiple examples. It also, somewhat jarringly, introduces environmental concerns: Torla, in stark contrast to the other Graceling Realms, is in the middle of an industrial revolution, and the fuel that powers their economy is toxic and dangerous to use and to produce. There are discussions of two-party politics, arms manufacturing, capitalism; there’s boarding school drama, murder, arson, imprisonment, court politicking and romantic intrigue; there are telepathic blue foxes, sentient sea-creatures and a massive gentle tentacled being with POV chapters.

This kitchen-sink approach is a poor fit with Cashore’s strengths as a writer. Generally, what’s enjoyable and valuable about the first three novels is the way they use tropes such as mind control and absolute monarchy to literalise the concerns about agency, privacy and consent that many modern teens face as they grow up, focusing those concerns through a single viewpoint character. In Winterkeep, that close focus is diffused: agency, privacy and consent all remain key themes, but they’re not literalised in the same way (there is telepathy in Winterkeep, but it’s somewhat sidelined in favour of more mundane forms of emotional abuse), and the introduction of a more political dimension to the text detracts from the clarity and depth with which Cashore’s other novels discuss them. And Cashore is not good on the politics. Her takes on two-party systems of government, environmental degradation and capitalism are basic, shallow, uninteresting; and she is unable in this volume to resolve the series’ increasingly inconsistent position on democracy. One of Bitterblue’s contingency plans for Monsea, should she die in Winterkeep, is for the country to transition into a republic; by this we are to understand that she is a just and progressive ruler. And yet by the end of Winterkeep she is discussing future children with her love interest, talking of teaching them to rule justly (instead of, for instance, abdicating her throne in favour of the republic she has already planned for). By this we are to understand that she has achieved a desirable romantic dream. Herein lies the problem: Cashore is fundamentally most interested in her characters’ personal lives, and so introducing an ill-thought-through political dimension creates tensions and fractures that the text is not set up to address.

The pleasures of the earlier novels are, however, not entirely absent from Winterkeep. Their fundamental good-heartedness about what their characters deserve from life remains: Bitterblue and Lovisa come through different kinds of abuse to find understanding, support and love. We care about them. We care about their ability to process and make it past what has happened to them. Ultimately it’s this that kept me reading despite the novel’s messiness, despite my initial scepticism about the telepathic foxes and the move from cod-medieval fantasy into quasi-steampunk: despite everything, Cashore’s love and concern for her characters is what shines through.

Review: Mister Monday

This review contains spoilers.

Mister MondayGarth Nix’s novel Mister Monday – the first in the Keys to the Kingdom series, which consists of seven books that are, yes, all named after days of the week – is one of those children’s books that, like Alice in Wonderland and much of Roald Dahl’s work, presents us with an exaggerated and apparently nonsensical view of the adult world in order to address concerns about growing up and becoming part of it. The novel’s prologue tells us about a sentient Will whose seven trustees, unwilling to execute it, have divided up into seven pieces which they have placed under constant guard; one of those pieces, however, has escaped, and is busy running around trying to be fulfilled. Back in our world, or a version of it, schoolboy Arthur Penhaligon collapses from a severe asthma attack and is handed a Key, a powerful magical artefact, by the titular Mister Monday, one of the Will’s trustees. Monday expects Arthur to die pretty much immediately, so he can then reclaim the Key while also having technically fulfilled the terms of the Will; but, thanks to the Will’s own intervention, Arthur survives, and enters the vast interdimensional House to which Monday and the other trustees belong in search of a cure for a plague that is threatening his hometown.

The House as we encounter it in Mister Monday (it takes different forms as the series goes on) is steampunk in aesthetic and bafflingly bureaucratic. There are thousands of ranks, with House denizens taking centuries to work their way up from some lowly position to a slightly higher one; there’s a decade-long queue to get an audience with Mister Monday; pretty much everyone is operating under arcane laws and restrictions that neither Arthur nor the reader have any hope of interpreting. In one scene we see a street full of people rushing about moving written documents for no reason that is ever explained (at least in this novel). It all strongly resembles a child’s idea of what an office looks like: a rigid Victorian hierarchy, uncomfortable and unfamiliar clothes, an impenetrable system of rules and regulations, an apparently arbitrary obsession with paperwork. In other words, the House appears to make little sense because office norms make little sense to children.

Which makes it significant that Nix’s child protagonist must eventually successfully navigate the House – both in order to stop the plague in our world and because Mister Monday’s actions have made him heir to the House and its environs. It’s notable that Arthur’s success in the House – which involves defeating and dethroning Mister Monday, and taking his place – directly enables his success in undoing the effects of the plague: having navigated the topsy-turvy adult world of the House, he’s able to take his first steps towards independent agency, and thus adulthood, in our world. In a particularly neat touch, both Arthur’s (deceased) birth parents and his adoptive mother Emily were instrumental in devising a cure for a flu epidemic a decade or so before the time in which the novel takes place; in effecting the cure for this new plague, Arthur is taking on his parents’ mantle, in another symbolic step towards adulthood.

So, in Mister Monday, Garth Nix is using portal fantasy to explore childhood anxieties about adulthood and agency, by having his young protagonist gain power over a distorted, fun-house version of an adult workplace – thus rendering the things that seem arbitrary about adult life more legible and therefore less sinister. Children’s literature is traditionally geared towards helping the implied child-reader become good members of the adult social order, and Mister Monday is no exception: Arthur may be a long way off true adulthood yet, but by the end of the novel he’s taken a significant step in its direction.

Review: How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?

N. K. Jemisin’s short story collection How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? is named for a 2013 essay of hers in which she discusses the lack of Black representation in SFF media. In that essay, she writes:

I wasn’t any more interested in all-black futures than I was in all-white futures. I just wanted fantasies of exploration and enchantment that didn’t slap me in the face with you don’t belong here messages. I just wanted to be able to relax and dream.

Her novels exemplify this pluralistic, fantastical outlook: the Hugo-winning Broken Earth trilogy is a story about colonialism and brutal oppression set in a multi-racial world where queerness is a run-of-the-mill reality; her standalone novel The Killing Moon features an Ancient Egypt analogue whose inhabitants practice dream-magic; in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, the first novel in the Inheritance trilogy, we find an incestuous divine threesome and, again, some fairly complex racial politics. These are novels that imagine new social possibilities, or that, in the case of the Broken Earth trilogy, are about the fight to reimagine how society works, to redefine who gets to be thought human.

The stories collected in How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?, then, are impressively diverse in terms of setting, tone and genre. We have steampunk set in a newly-free Haiti (“The Effluent Engine”); a far-future, alien-overlord dystopia (“Walking Awake”); a generation ship story with an all-Muslim cast of characters (“The Brides of Heaven”); a story of the Fair Folk in early-20th-century Alabama (“Red Dirt Witch”). There are even a couple of stories – “The Narcomancer” and “Stone Hunger” – set in worlds familiar from Jemisin’s later novels. What these stories do have in common, with each other and with the novels, is an ecstatic sense of the potential for change, brought about through revolution and protest; through connection with another being or society; or simply through a new understanding of the world and our place in it. Thus the Black heroine of “The Effluent Engine”, Jessaline Dumonde, tells her mixed-race romantic interest Eugenie, stuck in racist New Orleans, of a Haiti in which one’s ambition need not be limited by one’s race, gender or even sexual orientation. And in “On the Banks of the River Lex”, in which gods and anthropomorphic personifications linger apathetically in New York after the extinction of humanity, Death finds hope and the promise of new purpose in the burgeoning intelligence of an octopus.

Such change, though, rarely comes in these stories without a price. The opening story, “The Ones Who Stay and Fight”, stands as a sort of manifesto for the whole collection in this respect. A response to Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, it describes a utopian city, Um-Helat, organised around principles of mutual respect and support. Um-Helat’s prosperity and joy is perpetually threatened by transmissions from our own world, a place where “the notion that some people are less important than others has been allowed to take root”. Those who have been “tainted” by such transmissions – who have begun to believe in that notion – are summarily, humanely executed, lest the rot spread. This is a theme picked up on again and again in the collection: that pacifism is not enough in the face of oppressive structural violence, that tolerance is not a virtue to be extended to the intolerant. The heroines of both “Red Dirt Witch” and “Walking Awake” sacrifice themselves in order to bring about change – in one case killing an innocent bystander in the process. And when, in “The Effluent Engine”, privileged, sheltered Eugenie objects to her scientific prowess being used violently, Jessaline counters with the atrocities the French commander Rochambeau inflicted on the Haitians in the aftermath of their last failed rebellion. Eugenie’s mannered, Christian pacifism is made to seem ridiculous in the face of such atrocities: the oppressors, after all, did not obey such niceties.

This is not to portray How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? as a bleak read. There are stories that are horrible and uncomfortable or that end badly, but as a whole the collection is suffused with optimism, with vitality, with “exploration and enchantment”. Change may be difficult, but it is also wonderful: it exposes us to wonders, it allows us to build a more joyful world, a more joyful future, for everyone. In Jemisin’s own words in her introduction to the collection, “There’s the future over there. Let’s all go.”

Review: The Astonishing Excursions of Helen Narbon & Co.

The Astonishing Excursions of Helen Narbon & Co. is a Sunday serial that ran alongside Shaenon K. Garrity’s daily webcomic Narbonic (2000-2006). As the title suggests, it takes the webcomic’s central characters, mad scientist Helen Narbon, IT guy Dave, murderous intern Mell and Helen’s sworn archnemesis Professor Madblood, and drops them into a vaguely steampunk-Victorian milieu. Helen, Dave and Mell set off for the Moon in a contraption of Helen’s devising, only to be captured by a fishy race of aliens from Venus, who also have Madblood in their clutches. Can the gang escape the Venusians and get their holiday back on track…?

I’ve struggled to write satisfyingly about Narbonic, to get anything interesting out of the text, and I think the reason for that is: it’s not actually very good. This is particularly obvious in this steampunk serial, which being relatively short and, um, steampunk is on home ground for me, more so than the main run is anyway. As a deliberately pulpy text, plotted on the fly, it suffers from steampunk’s core pitfall: that of prioritising a British imperial worldview that’s upper-class, white and (more or less) straight. The space-exploration trope is pretty classically imperial-colonialist: imperial agents explore other worlds in order to make them legible to Westernised values of Reason and Science; and then scheme against the people they find there for personal gain. At one point we even meet a race of Italian-speaking female clones, referred to at least once as “Amazons”, who demand endless sex from Madblood as the only man they’ve seen for quite some time…which, yeesh.

Yes, these tropes are being deployed knowingly, parodically even (the lead characters in this adventure are, after all, almost parodies of their modern-day selves). But that knowingness doesn’t include critique; there is no coherent statement here other than, I guess “steampunk is aesthetically cool”. Which, to be fair, it is. But in this consumerist age I think we need to be wary of aesthetics; to ask, “What is being sold here?”; to distinguish between harmful ideology dressed up in flim-flam and work that is imaginatively generative, that deploys its aesthetics for meaningful effect. Narbonic and its associated serials are fun, and they’re not trying to be anything more than that; but I think it’s ok to hold our fun to higher standards.

Review: Clockwork Boys

T. Kingfisher’s Clockwork Boys follows a ragtag band of adventurers on a suicide mission: the Dowager, ruler of the unnamed city from which they hail, is sending them – three criminals and a sheltered scholar – to Anuket City, the source of the massive, murderous clockwork automatons ravaging the countryside and threatening war. A company of soldiers has been destroyed trying to make this journey, and all of the Dowager’s career spies in the city are dead. This journey is not a safe proposition.

Our party, then, consists of Slate, a forger and creative accountant; Brenner, an assassin who was once Slate’s lover; Caliban, a paladin who committed mass murder while possessed by a demon; and Learned Edmund, the aforementioned scholar and a dyed-in-the-wool misogynist.

Clockwork Boys isn’t, despite its title and cover art, steampunk; its setting is more the sort of cod-medieval society you’d encounter in a Dungeons & Dragons campaign. Kingfisher’s stated aim is to deconstruct the assumptions of such settings, particularly the RPG trope of the moody paladin, as she writes in her acknowledgements at the end of the novel. And, indeed, there are plenty of acts of subversion here: the fact that the party’s led by a woman with comparatively little martial skill; the depiction of the physical effects of a day’s riding on people who aren’t trained to it (spoiler: it’s quite painful); the general scurrilousness and disunity of the party as a whole.

It’s all reasonably entertaining, but it also feels somewhat recycled. Kingfisher says in her acknowledgements that she started writing it during NaNoWriMo in 2006, and it definitely reads like a NaNoWriMo novel: a magpie concoction of influences, ideas grabbed from everywhere in a mad rush to reach word count. The world doesn’t hang together terribly well; the narrative’s episodic, moving from set piece to set piece in a way that doesn’t feel purposefully planned. It doesn’t help that Clockwork Boys is not actually a full novel: it ends abruptly, leaving the narrative to be taken up by the sequel The Wonder Engine. (This is a practice that annoys me more than I can say. If you are selling me a novel, it needs to be a full work; I should be able to read and judge it standalone.)

Plus, well – the heroic fantasy tropes Kingfisher is writing about by and large aren’t mainstream any more, and in fact are so old-fashioned that the techniques used to undermine them have themselves become tropes (in particular the idea of criminals taking on heroic quests). Clockwork Boys is a reasonably fun read, but it’s not doing anything subversive or new, and there’s little to make it stand out from more immersive rogue quest novels like Chris Wooding’s Retribution Falls. My stance on it is, in a nutshell: if you do pick it up it’s okay; but there’s no compelling reason to pick it up when you could be reading something better.

Review: The Lie Tree

As Frances Hardinge’s seventh novel The Lie Tree opens, fourteen-year-old Faith and her family are approaching the fictional island of Vane, having suddenly left their home in Kent on the wings of scandal – Faith’s father the Reverend Erasmus Sunderly, a renowned naturalist, has been accused of fabricating his most famous finds. But Vane society is no kinder than that of the mainland, and the Sunderlys find themselves beset by gossip, rumours, secrets and lies. And when Erasmus Sunderly dies mysteriously, Faith finds among his papers an account of a miraculous plant, the Mendacity Tree. Whisper a lie to the Mendacity Tree (which thrives in darkness and shrinks from the light), and make as many people as possible believe that lie, and it will produce a fruit that gives the eater knowledge – the bigger the lie, the deeper and more consequential the knowledge.

There are several literary contexts The Lie Tree could be placed in (the Victorian novel is one; I also considered reading it alongside Michelle Paver’s Wakenhyrst, with which it has some striking similarities), but I think it’s most productively read as a work of children’s literature. Specifically, it’s a subversion of moralistic children’s stories in which young girls and women learn to be good, wise, patient and kind; to trust in God and other sources of paternal authority; in short, to conform to the restrictive gender roles British society traditionally assigns to women. I’m thinking of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books; Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden; Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (which is, however, American, not British).

Like many of Hardinge’s heroines, Faith is not good. She has a passion for secrets: for listening at doors, stealing furtive glances at paperwork, sneaking out at night. She’s also clever, having read her way through much of her father’s library and having acquired by herself a working knowledge of Ancient Greek.

These are traits that, at various points in the narrative, she actively seeks to suppress in herself, thanks to social conditioning that tells her that girls do not sneak around collecting secrets, they cannot have intelligent conversations about science without showing off or embarrassing people. Girls are good and quiet and dutiful and uncomplaining; they place the good of others (usually men) above their own. But it’s Faith’s cleverness, her unladylike boldness and her propensity for seeking out information that the adults around her would prefer to keep secret that allows her eventually to work out why her father died; in this text, then, those traits are coded as desirable, and the social pressures that encourage her to suppress them are shown as restrictive and wrong-headed.

One of the important things the novel does, then, is signal the bankruptcy of patriarchal authority. The Reverend Erasmus Sunderly, for example, far from being a shining example of Christian love and honesty, is cold and abusive to his family and lies to the entire scientific community because he is unable to accept Darwin’s theory of evolution. Doctor Jacklers, the island’s resident physician and a craniometrist, claims that intelligence is tied to brain size and thus that women are less intelligent than men – having smaller skulls on average. Faith experiences a profound sense of betrayal on this pronouncement: science itself is telling her that she is lesser. We, knowing Doctor Jacklers’ theory to be incorrect, can see this as a denouncement of the scientific establishment – not science itself – as another source of self-righteous patriarchal authority.

And then there’s the Mendacity Tree itself, which, as Erasmus Sunderly himself acknowledges, has strong resemblances to the Christian Tree of Knowledge. The Mendacity Tree, though, is clearly an unwholesome thing in its distaste for light, the opium-like effects its fruits induce in their eaters, and in its overall air of menace, its uncanny reactions to Faith’s visits. If it is the Tree of Knowledge, then that says some fairly unpalatable things about Christianity itself, and again about the social and patriarchal authority it exerts upon Victorian society.

If The Lie Tree describes ways in which Victorian society is oppressive and wrong-headed, then it also presents strategies for resistance and survival. For instance, Faith despises her mother Myrtle for her focus on keeping up appearances, and her flirtations with various men on the island, after Erasmus’ death; but towards the end of the novel we discover that Myrtle’s aim has all along been to protect her family from the ruin and reputational loss that would follow if Erasmus was found to have died by suicide. She’s simply been using the few tools that society has given her to achieve that. There are other women, too, in these pages who have found ways to exist in the cracks: the brilliant and frail scientist who uses her dilettante husband as cover; the lesbians who must keep their relationship secret. These are imperfect acts of resistance, but they demonstrate to Faith that resistance is possible, even desirable – that society’s expectations of her and of all women are not reasonable or viable.

The Lie Tree, then, critiques a tradition of children’s literature that aims to initiate young girls and women into an oppressive social order by undermining that social order and showing that resistance to it is desirable. Instead of asking readers to accept arbitrary pronouncements from holders of patriarchal authority, it encourages them to think for themselves, to seek out knowledge and to be willing to change their minds; skills we could all benefit from in the times that lie ahead.

Review: Rotherweird

For me, Andrew Caldecott’s first novel Rotherweird suffered from a mismatch of expectations. The cover and jacket copy (including a quote from MR Carey describing it as “Baroque, Byzantine and beautiful”) suggest a cross between Gormenghast and Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell’s weird and wonderful Edge Chronicles; something Gothic and menacing with a strong sense of place and alterity.

It is not like that.

The titular Rotherweird is a town tucked away in rural England, a medieval enclave hostile to outsiders, history before 1800 and modern technology. Thanks to a decree dating back to the Elizabethan period, it has no MP or bishop, only a mayor; to all intents and purposes, Rotherweird and the valley in which it sits are a realm apart. The story opens as Jonah Oblong, an outsider, takes a post as history teacher at Rotherweird School; as a mysterious set of beads is sold to an antiques shop in the town; and as another outsider, Sir Veronal Slickstone, takes up residence in the long-empty Slickstone Hall that sits at the heart of the town. The tale that unfolds from there reveals the history of the town and its connection to the little universe known as Long Acre, which can be reached from a couple of places in Rotherweird and which is filled with strange and dangerous biological hybrids.

Despite the Gothickry of its subject matter, the book’s actual tone is quite – light; it lacks the steadying sonorousness of Mervyn Peake’s work, which for me meant that the Dickensian exaggeration applied to the characters – most evident in their names, but also in the exaggerated mannerisms of personages like parkouring lady scientist Vixen Valourhand – tipped over into irrelevance. Put simply, I couldn’t find a reason to care about any of these thinly-drawn people in their middle-England bubble.

Actually I think this insular Englishness is a key part of why I bounced off Rotherweird so hard. With its Dickensian references (decoupled from the things that make Dickens great, his anger and his sense of social justice), its medieval architecture and its folk customs drained of religious content – a May morning coracle race down the River Rother; a midsummer pageant that plays host to the novel’s denouement – the novel is conjuring a myth of Merrie England that is exclusively white, straight and cis. Sure, there are some extremely sinister happenings in the town’s past and its present, but its seclusion from the outside world reads very much like a strategy on the author’s part to avoid dealing with anything that’s actually relevant to modern life. I just didn’t find anything for me in Rotherweird, and its total lack of atmosphere meant there was nothing to make up for its irrelevance. It’s not, like, an actively bad book; I didn’t find it offensive, or anything, so your mileage may very much vary. It just – wasn’t for me.

Review: The Tropic of Serpents

Marie Brennan’s The Tropic of Serpents is the second in her Lady Trent series, which follows the eponymous naturalist around her steampunk-inflected alternate world in search of dragons of various types and sizes. In this case, Isabella (not yet a Lady, and not yet a Trent – these novels being positioned as her memoirs) is headed for Bayembe, an analogue of an African country where colonial interests and the ambitions of neighbouring countries are contributing to a tense political situation – which Isabella and her companions of course get caught up in. As a result, they find themselves descending into the Green Hell, a tropical jungle/swamp that’s impossible to navigate or even survive without the aid of its indigenous people, the Moulish.

A key theme of this series, it seems to me, is exploration. Of course Isabella is a heroine made in the mould of colonial explorers like Indiana Jones or Jules Verne’s intrepid adventurers in novels like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or Journey to the Centre of the Earth; but whereas those protagonists ultimately seek to export imperial European values around the world, Brennan, aware of the pitfalls and false assumptions implicit in such an approach, is much more interested in exploring social alternatives to life in Scirling, her Britain analogue. Far from seeking to impose Scirling values on the people they meet in the course of their researches, Isabella and her companions choose to assimilate instead. Often this is more about convenience than anything else; gaining the favour of local people means they have greater freedom to study dragons. But it’s notable that Isabella is staunchly opposed to the use of violence, unlike her colonial literary forebears.

So, for instance, Isabella and her companions live for a time among the Moulish, who have little use for a concept of individual property, given their nomadic lives and how easy it is to replace the objects they do use from the materials in the forest. Later on in the novel there’s also a good example of how spiritual beliefs shape worldview and, in a way, reality: believing Isabella to be cursed because of a series of mishaps she’s suffered in the forest, the Moulish press her to take part in a purification ceremony in which she clears the air with anyone she’s wronged. Among other things, she admits her true motives to the Moulish and hashes out a longstanding conflict with one of her companions, the working-class Thomas Wilker. Although Isabella sees the ceremony as superstitious nonsense, participating only in order to keep peace with her hosts, it works: the party encounter fewer setbacks and everyone trusts and respects each other more. The point being that living among the Moulish and participating in their customs opens up social possibilities that don’t exist in Scirling society.

There are other points of difference from Scirling culture whose social implications are explored in varying detail: for instance, while staying in the palace of Bayembe’s king Ankumata, Isabella and her female companion Natalie are required to seclude themselves away from the rest of the court during menstruation. While Isabella chafes at this restriction, she discovers that the other women of the court see it as a kind of holiday, as they don’t have to do any work during this period. And we learn that the people of Bayembe and its surrounding countries trace inheritance down the female line, not the male – as a single woman Isabella presents an interesting opportunity to Ankumata’s son, given that if he married her Scirling custom would allow him to pass property down to his children, which he couldn’t do under Bayembe tradition. That last struck me as an interesting look back at empire, a reversal of the imperial gaze: if Isabella, a member of an imperial nation even if her outlook isn’t especially colonial, benefits from exploring social possibilities beyond Scirling, then the nations subject to her gaze can explore back, as it were, turning Scirling’s patriarchal social norms to their advantage.

But the most important work of exploration here is not external but internal. Isabella and her companions Natalie and Tom are all three of them working out modes of being that run counter to what’s expected in Scirling society. Isabella is a woman in a patriarchal society trying to figure out how she can be taken seriously as a scientist in her own right; Tom is a working-class man trying to break into a scientific field dominated by the middle and upper classes who look down on him for his origins; Natalie is exploring her sexuality, specifically her lack of it, and navigating conflict with her family around her resistance to marriage. In pushing against what’s expected of women and working-class people in Scirling society, each of them is trying to reimagine it as a place in which they can achieve their full potential – so their exploration of different societies around the world is an outward reflection of this personal, internal struggle.

Which brings us to the inescapable fact that, despite its respectful treatment of the Moulish and Bayembe societies, despite the presence of developed, interesting characters like Ankumata (whose leg braces are a rare example of positively presented disability aids in this sort of fiction) and the half-Moulish Faj Rawango, The Tropic of Serpents is still an Anglocentric novel; it’s still told from the perspective of empire. As Electra Pritchett points out here, a character like Ankumata or Faj Rawango could never be the protagonist without making it a different sort of story; the memoirs of a Victorian naturalist are always going to centre an imperial perspective. Isabella, Natalie and Tom may be exploring different social possibilities but they are not doing so from a neutral position; they are benefiting from the social insights they gain ultimately to enrich empire and empire’s goal of knowing the world through science.

This is a limitation of the subgenre Brennan’s working in rather than a limitation of this specific novel; but it is a limitation all the same. Identity politics aside, the novel itself is not particularly nuanced or complex – it follows a single narrative thread linearly through to its end in serviceable but not brilliant prose; rereading offers no overlooked delights. It’s a reasonably entertaining tale with a diversity of characters to recommend it, and I think in the end that’s all it strives to be – it’s not something that’s seeking to overturn the genre at a stroke. That’s fine! Not everything can be truly revolutionary. But this isn’t a book I’ll be returning to, I think.

Review: The Goblin Emperor

Published in 2014, Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor was runner-up for the 2015 Best Novel Hugo Award and was shortlisted for the Nebula. It’s well-loved by pretty much everyone I know who’s read it and a good portion of the online genre community; it’s often been described to me as an example of hopepunk, which I am very on board with.

Maia is the little-regarded, half-goblin fourth son of the elvish emperor Varenechibel IV, the result of a loveless political marriage that saw the emperor banish him and his goblin mother to an out-of-the-way estate. With his mother dead, Maia’s grown up under the less than tender care of his alcoholic, abusive cousin Setheris, who plainly resents Maia for his own exile from the court. But then word comes that the emperor’s airship has crashed, killing him and his three eldest sons – making Maia the new emperor. Thrust into political power he never expected to have, he must learn how to navigate the appearance-obsessed imperial court quickly if he’s to have a chance at survival and self-determination.

It’s easy to see why the novel is so loved. Maia is, honestly, a sweetheart: he’s kind, gentle, determined not to repeat the injustices his father perpetrated and very self-aware when it comes to the seductions of power. In a world where it’s startling, almost unthinkable, for an emperor to admit fault or recognise the personhood of others, he apologises for uncharacteristic outbursts of temper, asks to meet and learn the names of his household staff and works to give the women of the court greater agency when it comes to marriage negotiations. Watching him push against the hierarchical norms of his society and learn how he can best deploy his power to benefit those he rules – overcoming his abusive upbringing to resist the manipulation of those who want political power for themselves – is immensely satisfying. It’s nice. The Goblin Emperor is a nice book.

For me, though, it’s haunted by a kind of ideological doublethink which is most obvious in Maia’s attitude to the servants. Elvish society generally relegates them to second-class status, whereas for goblins servants are part of the family – hence Maia’s desire to learn his servants’ names and support the families of the servants who died aboard his father’s airship. The servants involved – and their families – are pleased and honoured by this recognition, and the warm fuzzy feelings their gratitude generates in the reader obscure the fact that having a serving class at all is unjust and exploitative; Maia being nice to them doesn’t materially change their circumstances. This contradiction repeats itself throughout the novel: that Maia is committed to using his absolute power justly does not mean it is just that he has that power in the first place. The novel enacts this striving towards justice and liberalism without really interrogating the nature of kingship itself, and whether true justice and liberalism is possible in a state led by an unelected official. Maia is not making radical changes to the structure of government; he’s just being slightly nicer to more people. And yet this ultimately pretty conservative text is being read as an entry in the radical hopepunk movement. Perhaps this is all the radicalism that can be managed in high fantasy, a genre that’s predicated on the institution of kingship; I don’t actually think that’s true, but the fact that it is being read as a radical text is a pretty unfortunate statement on the state of the genre generally.

I do want to emphasise that in many ways The Goblin Emperor is a good novel. Its emphasis on process rather than imperial fiat – that is, on the hard work of getting things done, building relationships and having meetings and managing correspondence rather than, e.g., assassinating people and planning battles – is a welcome reminder of what good leadership really looks like. Foz Meadows’ review of the book in Strange Horizons looks at the systematic relationship between abuse and power in the novel, suggesting ways in which Addison does interrogate the nature of kingship. And, generally, it’s just a nice book to spend time with. But it doesn’t quite work.

Review: Tooth and Claw

Published in 2003, the premise of Jo Walton’s fourth novel Tooth and Claw is, quite literally and without exaggeration, “Anthony Trollope with dragons”. Here’s Walton on its genesis:

It has to be admitted that a number of the core axioms of the Victorian novel are just wrong. People aren’t like that. Women, especially, aren’t like that. This novel is the result of wondering what a world would be like if they were, if the axioms of the sentimental Victorian novel were inescapable laws of biology.

The novel begins with the death of Dignified Bon Agornin, an event which precipitates a dispute among his descendants about the distribution of his wealth and body – for dragons gain physical strength, and thus social prestige, by consuming dragonflesh. The landed gentry eat up the ailing dragonets of their tenant farmers, as well as their own children; disputes formal and informal are resolved by fights to the death; male dragons’ lives are a constant fight for dragonflesh and social position. Female dragons, meanwhile, have hands instead of claws, are liable to die if they have too many clutches of eggs too closely together, and, most significantly, blush a permanent red if a male dragon touches them – which is fine if the dragons intend to marry, but if not the female is considered damaged goods.

It’s a clever conceit, literalising the real savagery that lay behind the polite fictions of Victorian society: dragon courtesy dictates, for instance, that dragonflesh should only be consumed in the presence of a parson, allowing the gentry to maintain the fiction that gobbling up sick children is a civilised thing to do. So we have what is on its surface a “light and bright and sparkling”* novel about the fortunes of gentlewomen who need to find husbands (the marriage market is, unsurprisingly, a literal thing in Tooth and Claw, although we never see it up close and personal) and their noble but socially precarious relatives, which is actually interrogating the class and gender assumptions of an era we still venerate.

There are some odd tensions, though, even given this framework, that I’m not sure the novel works out very productively. The substance of the dispute over Bon Agornin’s body is basically that the old dragon intended for his less-established children, Avan, an up-and-coming official in the capital city of Irieth and his two unmarried sisters Haner and Selendra, to take the lion’s share of his body; a provision that his son-in-law Daverak completely ignores, taking the largest share for himself, his wife (Bon Agornin’s eldest daughter) Berend and their dragonets. A furious Avan opens a lawsuit against Daverak, putting his sisters in an awkward position, given that Haner is to live with Daverak and Berend.

The portrayal of Daverak is the source of one of the novel’s odd tensions: he is a bully who abuses his social power, eating the healthy dragonets of his tenant farmers as well as elderly, ailing or disobedient servants, indirectly killing his wife by forcing her to produce too many eggs too soon and eventually making Haner’s safety and dowry contingent on her cooperation with him against Avan. The story of the novel is in an important way the story of how Daverak gets his comeuppance; how this rotten apple is pruned from the tree of dragon society. But the fact that Daverak is a monster distracts from the fact that dragon society is itself monstrously unequal; Daverak’s punishment for abusing his power in dramatic ways doesn’t undo that fact. It’s like – the novel ultimately asks us, at the level of plot, to focus on individual power rather than collective power structures.

What makes this particularly strange is that Walton explicitly points up the inequality in draconic (and by extension Victorian) power structures beyond even the literalisation of savagery inherent in her premise. Haner’s first-hand observation of how Daverak treats his servants radicalises her, and she becomes interested in a movement working towards easing the lot of the serving class. But within the novel her interest is treated as an eccentricity, and the one time she actually does anything meaningful about it – she goes to meet the author of a radical book on the subject – operates only as an inciting moment for the novel’s dramatic denouement (Daverak believes she has actually gone to meet Avan to conspire against him, and locks her up in her bedroom). The novel closes shortly afterwards, in Shakespearean-comedic fashion, with Avan, Selendra and Haner all safely partnered with good matches; no further mention of actual social change. I suppose this is a weakness of the Victorian novels on which Tooth and Claw is modelled, but it’s not lampshaded in a way that would make the repetition of that weakness ironic; it’s just a weakness.

I kind of want to emphasise that this is quite a productive tension, though, in that Tooth and Claw gives the reader a lot to think with when it comes to power relations in Victorian (and modern) texts: how drives toward social justice are defanged and folded into the status quo; how the law works to uphold existing social structures; how monstrous power structures perpetuate themselves. Plus, “Victorian novel with dragons” is just fun, no matter how you slice it. Tooth and Claw isn’t a perfect book but it’s a surprisingly meaty one – I kind of wish more SFF authors would try this sort of thing in a way that isn’t completely superficial.

 

*Jane Austen on Pride and Prejudice